Michelle de Kretser was eight years old when her mother saw a ghost. It’s a story she tells with great relish, conjuring up for you a dry day in Jaffna and a family of six staying in King’s House. Her father, the Supreme Court judge O.L. de Kretser and his wife Peggy had frequently stayed in the 300-year-old mansion, a place whose hallways echoed with the clip-clop of phantom hooves, where long dead soldiers stalked the rooms in pursuit of forbidden love. Michelle was their youngest, a bookworm with a penchant for being terrified by ghost stories and she was more than prepared to believe the keeper when he declared it an authentic ghost sighting. Did the spirits of the two star-crossed lovers linger? The thought of the Dutch governor’s daughter and her soldier, sent so cruelly to the front to die, elicited a pang of dread and pity in the judge’s daughter.
It was 1966 and language politics were the subject of heated discussion in the Dutch-Burgher community, with the majority convinced that phasing out English could do both theirs and their children’s employment prospects little good. The judge was ready to retire and from their home in Havelock Town, Michelle’s parents made the decision to leave. By 1972 all her siblings were already married and settled abroad. Many of Michelle’s classmates at Methodist College were making similar plans to immigrate.
Largely oblivious to the swirl of language politics around their decision to leave, Michelle says, “I was a child and I went with a light heart.” Australia was a revelation and an adventure. “It seemed futuristic almost in its modernity,” says Michelle. They settled in Melbourne, where her mother’s sister had made a home. An apartment was substituted for a house with a garden, and there were no dogs. Still, when her parents returned home to care for ailing family, she had adapted well enough to her new home.
It’s been 23 years since Michelle was last here (she has only come home thrice since she left). In that time she has published three books, and among many, many other honours, has won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and been longlisted for the Booker. The Rose Grower (1999), published when Michelle was 42, was followed by The Hamilton Case (2000) and The Lost Dog (2004). Now in her early fifties, Michelle’s luxurious imagery, her success in creating a world “dense with meaning” and a rare knack for turning out an exceptional sentence have placed her in the ranks of Australia’s most beloved authors.
Having feasted on hoppers and fresh pineapple juice for breakfast this morning, the author is in an exceedingly amiable frame of mind when we meet. A slender woman, mouth painted a deep maroon, fingers be-ringed with plastic flowers, Michelle still seems surprised by her success. While we talk, her fingers tangle in her hair, tugging the strands here and there, so that they stand in stiff angles against the ocean breeze. Charting the course of her life, she describes her many journeys between Australia and France, where she lived first as a teacher, then as a student, and finally as an employee of Lonely Planet.
It was on a walking tour of France with her partner Chris Andrews, a lecturer in French at Melbourne University, that she first began to write. “I still couldn’t explain the impulse exactly to you, except as a kind of exercise and a way of passing the time,” she says. Out of her disciplined 500-words-a-day approach emerged Sophie Saint-Pierre, the eponymous rose grower. When Michelle’s agent sold the book a month before she had to report back to work, the fledgling author decided to take the gamble of a lifetime. It took five years and three novels for her to change her job description from editor to writer and she’s still uncertain. “It’s a funny thing, writing. Editing is a trade, a technique, a craft and it’s one for which I have great respect. But writing feels like a gift that is granted that might be withdrawn...I’ve written three novels and people ask ‘does it get easier?’ No, it doesn’t... I’m never sure that I will ever be able to do it again.” She finds such angst is rarely conducive to writing. “I need to be very bored to write,” she says, “my mental wall paper has to be beige.”
Michelle employs what she calls the “silk underwear” approach to her craft – “it feels good but no one else must be able to see it.” She maps out the boundaries of her fictional worlds in startling detail – from what Tom Loxely of ‘The Lost Dog,’ sees out of his window, to the names of his wife’s sisters. When all else fails, Michelle takes her own dogs Minnie and Oliver for a walk. Her father bred spaniels in Sri Lanka and Michelle has an enduring affection for mutts of all breeds. In her writing, they bite people, offer healing adoration to their masters and get lost in the Outback. In fact, like the bric-a-brac, alternately valuable and tacky, that clutters the shelves of her characters and like the ghosts that drift across her pages, they are part of a motif that runs across all three novels.
Tugging on a rebellious strand of hair, she says earnestly that she is a person haunted by the past. It’s a feeling many of her readers share. In her novel, ‘The Hamilton Case’, ghosts linger in the abandoned rooms of the Obeysekeras’ house in Lokugama. They are privy to secrets that lie at the heart of the Obeysekera clan’s steady unravelling and Michelle chronicles their effect on Sam, his sister and his mother Maude with a profound compassion.
“What is the function of a ghost story? Ghosts are the agents of memory; they do not allow us to forget...” And in her novels, few of her characters are afforded that luxury. Set in Ceylon that is shaking itself free after years under the British, where a privileged elite have little patience with a new socialist government, ‘The Hamilton Case’ is made particularly memorable by the character of Sam Obeysekera. Sam, the last proud anglophile, fancies himself a man of undisputed intelligence. When he applies himself to solving the murder of a white planter named Hamilton, Sam does not anticipate that finding the solution could prove the ruin of his ambitions.
Michelle had already drafted the first part of Sam’s narrative when she found herself in a British library, researching the legal system in Sri Lanka during the colonial period. When she came across a volume that chronicled famous murder cases from that time, she knew she had hit the jackpot. Flipping through the pages she came across a chapter that detailed a crime - The Pope Murder Case – that introduced elements similar to those in her fictional one. “When I saw that title and no sooner, I remembered that my father had written a book about it,” says Michelle. Judge de Kretser had served as a junior counsel for the prosecution in the early ’40s when the death of a white planter stirred up controversy across the nation.
Though Michelle took pleasure in incorporating the mystery into her novel, it is reduced almost to a prop by her uncommonly complex characters. In the labyrinthine psychology of her creations lay motives that had the power to startle their author into awareness. When readers commented on how Sam obsessed over objects of all kinds, Michelle told them it was psychological – “he collects these things as a bulwark against loneliness.” But while a valid analysis, it would take much probing before Michelle could see what lay behind Sam’s hoarding – and what it revealed about her own writing. “It had to do with recollection and re-collection, it had to do with collecting the fragments of this world that was lost forever. When I left Sri Lanka, I left, abandoning everything for this new adventure. This was a way of putting that world back together and saying goodbye to it, taking my leave of it, in a way that was formal and considered.”
Still, it’s apparent that this is a reunion Michelle has been anticipating. Hands on her hips, she tells me it’s good to be reminded that this is where she comes from. Though both her parents have passed away, her godparents still live in Colombo. It also helps that despite the turn of decades, some things remain comfortingly familiar – just this morning a walk down the road brought her to her school, where in her old classrooms she found young students singing the same songs she sang as a child. Courtesy the diligence of a younger self, she still remembers the words.