Novelists who have spent long and illustrious careers producing consistently clever, compelling and highly acclaimed fiction tend to either rest on their laurels in their advanced years and cling to the familiar, or venture out and tackle something bold and original. With his fourteenth novel, A Long Way From Home, Australia's finest living novelist Peter Carey does both.
Carey plays it safe by mining his own childhood. Carey grew up in Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, where his parents ran a General Motors dealership. The first section of his novel is set in 1953 in the same locality – “33 miles from Melbourne” – and focuses partly on the hopes and dreams of a car-mad representative of that same company. Later, though, Carey explores entirely new ground by changing direction, delving deep, and examining for the first time his country’s brutal crimes against its Indigenous people.
Titch Bobs is the best car salesman in rural Victoria. So says his wife Irene, who is also one of Carey’s narrators. The pair are a perfect match: she too is short and “in the motor game”; in Titch’s eyes she is “a better driver than any man I ever rode with.” Despite being “a lifetime soldier in the cause of Ford”, Titch finds himself forced to switch his allegiance to General Motors. To drum up publicity for his new dealership, Titch enters them for the Redex Reliability Trial.
For Irene, this eighteen-day motorsport rally is only for “skites and show-offs”: “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.” Nevertheless, she agrees to be his co-driver, and after roping in their neighbour Willie Bachhuber as navigator, they head off to their departure-point in Sydney and move from “a private simmer to a very public boil.”
As with his earlier novels Theft and Parrot and Olivier in America, Carey alternates between two narrators. His other voice belongs to Willie, the son of a Lutheran pastor. This rangy, nervy schoolteacher, quiz show contestant and lover of maps appears to be everything Irene isn't. Opposites eventually do attract – he considers Irene "shockingly becoming" – but Willie comes along for the ride not to find love but to escape both a home that is "sad as suicide" and "the abyss of an empty life."
For a while it seems as if Willie’s role is that of comic dullard or blundering sad-sack, a deliberate foil to competent, gutsy, vivacious Irene. This is a man who wallows in self-pity, who is suspended for dangling a troublesome thirteen-year-old pupil out of a second-floor classroom window, and who is asked during his driver’s test what colour an orange is. But while Willie is starkly different from Irene, he is by no means a source of fun – or, for that matter, misery.
Instead, over the course of the race and beyond, Willie emerges as a useful observer and a vital chronicler. The trio – in Titch’s words, “business maggots from Bacchus Marsh” – clock up the miles on a route comprising bumpy roads, tight bends, precipitous drops and intersecting creeks. But after some distance Willie leaves the trial and embarks on a journey of his own, one which unlocks secrets about his origins, his identity, and his nation’s bloody history.
A Long Way From Home doesn't end with a finish line. The car race gives way to discoveries about race. It's a sharp narrative swerve, an abrupt change of gear, and to begin with Willie's fact-finding mission constitutes a dramatic loss of momentum: no longer is "every pedal to the metal".
Carey achieves better results in his earlier sections by presenting racial crimes through sporadic yet memorable hints and allusions, responses and meditations. During a pit-stop, Irene comes across unburied bones – “There were so many, they must be blacks” – and tenderly cradles a baby’s skull. She assumes a road is called the “Horror Stretch” because of its conditions – until Willie explains it was the site of a massacre, or “dispersal”.
What redeems Carey's last section is not so much what his characters say as they way they say it. Carey has always been a gifted ventriloquist, adept at replicating the Australian vernacular – and taking it to dazzling extremes in his 2001 Booker winner True History of the Kelly Gang. Here, he brilliantly articulates the idiom of Indigenous Australians: "Whitefellah cut'em up my country," one man tells Willie. "Whitefellah can't see that living water don't know story for country."
This is a particularly colourful Carey novel, full of fierce scrutiny but also playful antics, vivid scenery and memorable characters. Irene’s voice is full-bodied, Willie’s is more reserved, but both prove captivating. Carey has created his fair share of rogues – literary hoaxers, hackers, convicts, confidence tricksters, bushrangers – but on this outing his disreputable figures are shady secondary characters – from Irene’s appalling father-in-law Dangerous Dan, to “toxic sweaty” General Motors supremo Dunstan, to wheeler-dealer Whacker Thacker – “he with the peeled potato chin and grubby overcoat.”
As ever, Carey routinely encapsulates a character with a brief but well-turned descriptive phrase: “I could hear the cruel way life had scraped the meat off him and left him with a rope belt and shrunken sweater.” Sometimes he deploys a purposeful vagueness which keeps us reading, hungry for more: “She had a magpie history, bright pebbles with no bedrock.”
Carey serves up wrong turns and breakdowns, illicit desires and fallouts. There is a surprise fatality and, for Willie, a whole series of shock revelations. With the chooks and mopokes, brumbies and yabbies, and the myall, mallee and mulga, a whole other world comes thrillingly alive.
Prior to the race, Irene remembers explorers who died while traversing Australia. “Now we would face the killer country,” she muses. “We would circle the whole of our murderous continent”. Carey’s remarkable novel charts the lie of the land and unearths the dark truths beneath the surface.