The Life to Come is billed as the Sri Lankan-born Australian’s fifth novel, but it could perhaps more accurately be described as a collection of linked stories. It won the 2018 Mile Franklin Award and one that is justified given its depth and complexity.
It doesn’t offer the traditional path of most novels - : that of the journey of a central character or characters unfolding over time. Instead the five long chapters present us with separate stories, mostly set in Australia, vaguely linked by the recurring character of Pippa, a writer with more drive than obvious talent. A tale of youthful ambition is followed by one of young love. A story about an expat Australian in Paris coming to question her life’s meaning and the commitment of her married female lover is succeeded by another about motherhood and betrayal. The last story deals with aging and the awfulness of dementia.
There is a strong undercurrent throughout the book of things being forgotten, repressed or just misunderstood. The journey upon which the reader is taken is haphazard and at times disjointed making one search for the links between each story which while tenuous, are certainly present. The preoccupation with oversimplification however makes it difficult to truly find connection with a character, although it is the search that keeps the reader engaged, And certainly in the final story we feel a deep connection as many questions get answered. The ever present search by both characters and subsequently, the reader however can make it difficult to read at times.
The prose is light and delightful particularly in describing seemingly mundane aspects of the characters lives. It also addresses many powerful themes such as the massacres of Indigenous Australians, the murder of Algerians in Paris in the 1960s and the complex ethnic politics of Sri Lanka. However, we are not allowed to dive too deep into these complex – they remain on the periphery almost a storm thundering in the distance.
Overall, it’s worth a read, but don’t expect a light filled journey across continents- you’ll need a good head about you for this one.