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Originally published Sunday, July 7, 2013 at 5:02 AM

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‘Questions of Travel’: the paths of two world wanderers

Michelle de Kretser’s new novel, “Questions of Travel,” follows two travelers, an Australian and a Sri Lankan, as their stories play out over several continents and four decades.

Special to The Seattle Times

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‘Questions of Travel’

by Michelle de Kretser

Little, Brown, 461 pp., $25.99

Early on in Michelle de Kretser’s sprawling fourth novel “Questions of Travel,” a young woman traveling the world realizes something about wandering. “At home, memory thickened all occasions, however news-unworthy. Here, she would never look at a cinema and see the scene of her first kiss, never pass a stand of stiff-winged dark trees that had invaded the dreams of five-year-old Laura. She realized, That’s why ghosts return.”

“Questions of Travel” is about ghosts, and about what we carry when we travel. In alternating third-person chapters encompassing four decades (from the 1960s to 2004), it’s told from the point of view of two characters, whose paths intersect only near the book’s end. Laura, an Australian, is distant from her family and becomes a world traveler after she receives a modest inheritance; soon, and naturally, she becomes a travel writer. Ravi is a Sri Lankan (de Kretser’s home country; she currently lives in Australia) and a computer scientist who must leave his country after an unspeakable tragedy. He makes his way to Australia, ghosts in tow, but soon finds his new habitat growing on him. “By the end of that summer, Australia had entered Ravi. Now it would keep him company, no matter where in the world he went.” The book’s ending is sudden, elegant and heartbreaking.

De Kretser, whose previous novel “The Lost Dog” received many honors (including Australia’s “Book of the Year” award), writes eloquently of travel; of cheap hostels where “grievances and baguettes were sliced up and shared.” It’s the book’s central metaphor: A character notes that a relationship “wasn’t going anywhere” while another silently notes that “going somewhere was the thing”; another contacts an old flame — “like any traveler who has lost her way, she was trying to get back to a landmark she knew.” And the Internet becomes a character, as Ravi becomes fascinated by obsolete, abandoned websites (“it was like wandering through a brand-new, labyrinthine mansion in which a door opened to reveal a grave”), and Laura finds adventure online, traveling from site to site “in an exhilarating patternless dance.”

But despite de Kretser’s thoughtful writing and careful population of the book (it feels agreeably crowded), “Questions of Travel” never quite brings us inside the heads of its two main characters. Laura and Ravi’s chapters feel different — Laura’s have choppier sentences and shorter paragraphs; Ravi’s are more introspective — but they don’t quite emerge as breathing, living people as opposed to character studies. (Laura, in particular, remains an enigma.) After spending hundreds of pages with these characters, it still feels as if we don’t quite know them; like a fellow train passenger who intrigues us but disembarks too soon, leaving us to make up stories about who they might have been.

Moira Macdonald is the movie critic for The Seattle Times.

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