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Book review: The life to come by Michelle de Krester

One of the characters I most enjoyed in Michelle de Krester's The life to come is Sydney's inner west.

The life to come by MIchelle de Krester I arrived in Newtown on a yellowy January morning in the early 1980s and lived above King St near the start of Erskinville Rd for six months before a succession of terrace houses across Newtown, Emmore and Macdonaldtown.

Coming from the country to study 'Communications' I could easily have been minor character fodder for the author, momentarily shuffling by in ill-fitting jeans alongside the ubiquitous Pippa and George (that is, they are the only characters appearing in all five sections of what is an artfully decentralised narrative).

I might not have done too well descriptively from de Krester's pen. She finds a way to poke holes in all of her characters, perhaps with the exception of expat Christabel who is the most downtrodden of characters, but not by the author, who otherwise sustains a mildly scornful, disapproving or comedic tone.

For example, George the English lecturer whose turgid writing wins mostly critical acclaim (and not much else) says of the younger, university-aged Pippa:

'...he remembered just in time, that he was talking to someone whose idea of ethics was a dinner party.' This was by way of dismissing Pippa's attempts to align herself with various fashionable causes.

Also, well and truly into her literary career, Pippa mistakenly recalls George, her former English lecturer, urging her to become a writer:

'Over the scraping of chairs and the clatter of departing students, George told her, "You should write." He looked directly into her face as if issuing a command.'

The actual incident, occurring early in the novel, has a frustrated George telling Pippa that if she loved studying English, 'In that case, I suggest you learn to write it.' A whole career (and the structure for this novel) founded on a misheard criticism. Such is life.

Most other characters fare little better and we are left wondering if anyone is capable of being true and unaffected. Eve for example, Pippa's north shore mother-in-law, seems determined to maintain an ensemble of politically correct acquaintances that she can produce at social occasions or in conversation. A practice that backfired in a profound way.

There is so much in this book -  violence in Sri Lanka, pretence and shallowness in publishing, the trajectory of hope, resignation, fear and suspicion in relationships, the formless loss of dementia, the plague of social media and smart phones - but it often escapes the reader as this feast is delivered gently and gradually and indirectly almost by osmosis, and I will admit that at times I lost track of what characters belonged in which section and what their story was. Or how they made their way into the novel at all. Perhaps more the fault of the reader than the writer.

For people of faith, there is little to find directly but perhaps the 'nothing is sound' feeling we get from the book alongside the persistent beauty of (or longing for) love and kindness, are reminders that the meta-narrative we hold to is not without witness in the world.

It is fun to imagine that perhaps George could convert to Catholicism as Bill Hayden has recently done, or that Christabel might find solace in the vibrant and loving local St Peter's Tongan church... Not sure the Miles Franklin would have been awarded for The life to come, if things had worked out this way...

Back to my favourite character - we returned to the inner west in the late nineties and for a second season have lived our way through various suburbs including Strathfield (the edge of the inner west I have been told, authoritatively), Leichhardt and Five Dock, as well as working and befriending in other suburbs.

There's something about recognising in a novel the clutter of St Peter's or the frustration of finding a right hand turn on Parramatta Rd, Leichhardt that somehow affirms your legitimacy in the world. Which may be what the characters of The life to come were all quietly searching for.

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