“During the early 1950s, many young Australians made the traditional pilgrimage to Europe by ship. Meanwhile, a wave og post-war European migrants was coming the other way: ‘Displaced Persons’; refugees from the havoc of the Second World War.
“Ilsa Kalnins, the Latvian showgirl, is one such refugee. Robert O’Brien is a sheltered young Australian, running away from the tedium and security of a country that is still almost wholly insular and Anglo-Saxon. Ilsa, disturbed and disturbing, exerts a fascination over Robert that changes the voyage and his life. He is never to reach Europe: instead they travel through India together. Ahead is catastrophe, as each seeks in the other answers that cannot be found.”
The story starts with ’60s suburban Australia, where Robert O’Brien fails his life and runs away from it. He sails to Europe with a mate to find a Latvian immigrant. He falls head over heels in love, with the journey changing.
Robert and Isla now wander through India, looking at lost love, lost chances, and even lost time, full of references to the beauty of Asian living. Much of the story anticipates Koch’s upcoming books, especially with the many references to Indian poverty, the presence of Asian gods and the nightmarish scenarios it entails.
Robert can be a cruel character, but he can also earn sympathy from readers. You want to punch him and pity him at the same time.