A Long Way from Home by Peter Carey

Reviewed by Harriet

A Long Way from Home, as the title implies, is a novel of a journey in more than one sense. An actual physical journey takes up the central portion of the book, which is divided into three related parts, but it’s also a journey to self-knowledge, with all that implies, for one of the central characters.

The novel begins in Bacchus Marsh, a small town thirty miles from Melbourne, which happens to be Carey’s home town. In fact his father, like the character Titch Bobs in the novel, was a motor car salesman. As the story starts, Titch, his attractive, lively young wife Irene and their two children have just arrived in Bacchus March intending to set up a car dealership. Another new inhabitant is Willie Bachhuber, the son of a Protestant preacher and until recently a schoolteacher, though he has just been sacked for hanging a racist pupil out of a window by his heels. Willie’s marriage has broken up amid accusations of infidelity, after his wife gave birth to a black son. He’s now working at a local radio station and has developed a crush on his attractive co-presenter. Meanwhile he papers his cottage with maps of Germany, being immensely proud of his heritage despite being an object of suspicion in this post-war era (the novel is set in the early 1950s).  Willie and Irene make friends over the garden fence, and when the Bobseys make an ambitious plan, Willie gets involved.

The central section of the novel describes how the plan gets put into action. Titch has decided they must enter the Reddux Around Australia Reliability Trial, an extraordinary (and real) event which involves

Two hundred lunatics circumnavigating the continent of Australia, more than ten thousand miles over outback roads so rough they might crack your chassis clean in half.

The children are sent to Irene’s sister. Irene must go on the trial because she’s the better driver, and as Titch isn’t much use as a navigator, Willie, the great lover of maps, is roped in to take part. Indeed, his role is hugely important as they have to  make their way through unmade roads, dried up rivers, ‘talcum powder dustbowls’, hidden cattlegrids and sheer drops. If you’ve ever wanted to know what rural Australia looks like, you’ll have a pretty good idea after this. But there’s much more going on here than simply endurance and skill.The Bobseys marriage, previously seemingly watertight, starts to show signs of coming apart, and Willie is faced with astonishing but seemingly incontrovertible evidence of his own racial identity.

In the third part of the novel, Willie has got separated from the car and the Bobseys, and finds himself in a situation where he has to confront his own, and his country’s, indigenous roots. I don’t want to say too much about this because it will spoil it for you if, as I hope, you decide to read the novel for yourself. But, as has often been pointed out, this whole theme has been a hugely important one for Carey, who has said that it’s time Australians acknowledged the genocide that was carried out in the name of civilisation.  Carey has spoken at length about all this in various interviews:

It’s no good not engaging with something that you’ve been intrinsically involved in. You wake up in the morning and you are the beneficiary of a genocide. I’m an Australian writer and I haven’t written about this? Well, that just seems pathetic to me.*

This part of the novel is the most fascinating, evidently having been meticulously researched by Carey with the help of an anthropologist. The stories we are used to hearing about Australian history are completely rewritten here, and even the white settlers’ maps must be completely redrawn. Take it from me, Captain Cook does not come well out of this reconsideration of the past. ‘I didn’t go anywhere too deep,’  says Carey. ‘The stories that I felt best about were when Indigenous people had appropriated [European stories] … the general notion of the colonised biting back.’*

I’ve been a great admirer of Carey for many years and have read most of his novels. I’ve seen reviews of this one which suggest it is his best so far. I don’t know about this, but I will say it’s an important novel as well as an enjoyable one and I’m very glad to have read it.

*https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/nov/18/peter-carey-you-wake-up-in-the-morning-and-you-are-the-beneficiary-of-a-genocide

 

Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Peter Carey, A Long Way From Home (Faber & Faber, 2018).  978-0571338832, 368pp., hardback.

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