Two-time Booker Prize-winning author Peter Carey delivers a Great Australian Epic in picaresque form. He will appear March 14 at Elliott Bay Book Co.
“A Long Way from Home”
by Peter Carey
Knopf, 318 pp., $26.95
The Australian characters in Peter Carey’s new novel never leave Australia — but as they circumnavigate the island continent over the course of the book’s 300 pages, they find themselves in ever more unfamiliar territory.
In “A Long Way from Home,” two-time Booker Prize-winning author Carey (“Oscar and Lucinda,” “True History of the Kelly Gang”) delivers a Great Australian Epic in picaresque form. The focus is on the characters’ awakening to Australian colonial and racial legacies. Carey’s method is to pull you into the minds of people who, through no fault of their own, have little idea of who they are.
The year is 1953. The setting is the town of Bacchus Marsh, 30-odd miles from Melbourne. The alternating narrators are Irene Bobs, wife to aspiring car-dealer Titch Bobs, and the Bobs’ schoolteacher neighbor, Willie Bachhuber.
As the book opens, both Irene and Willie have family issues confronting them. Irene adores her Titch (all 5-foot-3 of him) but dreads her domineering father-in-law Dan, who, at 75, is “still in competition with his son.” Her chief spousal duty, as she sees it, is to stop abusive Dan from walking all over Titch.
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Willie, meanwhile, is in retreat from a marriage that produced a child he thinks can’t possibly be his. He’s also on leave from his school for dangling an unruly student out a second-floor window.
The solution for all their troubles is to take part in the 1954 Redex Trial, a real-life round-the-continent automotive marathon that “punished ordinary production cars and made them do things they were never meant to do.” Titch and Irene will alternate as drivers. Willie will serve as navigator.
The idea isn’t to beat a speed record but to prove the durability of the car. For Irene and Titch, publicity from winning the Trial could help award them the car dealership they’re after. For Willie, it’s a chance to escape his woes and discover an Australia that’s a virtual fantasyland to him.
“I had never seen an Aboriginal,” he explains. “They were all far away in dusty history, or in hot places where they threw stones at passing cars.”
Once on the road, the trio encounters obstacles beyond the daunting physical challenges that face them. Titch’s ornery dad decides to become his son’s road rival. A nascent attraction between Irene and Willie further complicates matters.
Carey makes the most of these quirky dramas. But he also throws in an out-of-left-field twist. Starting in northern Queensland, the locals, including a number of Aborigines, keep mistaking blond, Nordic Willie — a man who pines for an ancestral Germany he’s never seen — for an Aborigine himself.
The trio’s odyssey, in addition to being a rollicking adventure, leads to a startling exchange of worlds. Bigotries are confronted. Hidden histories are revealed.
Carey colors his antic, sidewinding prose with place names (“Lambing Flat,” “Footscray”), slang (“chook house,” “hoons”) and fauna (“currawong,” “brumby”) that use the fabric of language itself to evoke this 1950s Australia. His take on his characters is both tart and affectionate. It’s a heartbreaking moment when Irene sums up her ever-forgiving husband’s attitude toward his father: “He was a wonder, wresting love from dung.”
“A Long Way from Home” is a frolic with depth, a flight of fancy with tough resonance.
Peter Carey will appear with Pam McClusky at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 14, at Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; 206-624-6600, elliottbaybook.com. He will also speak as part of the Third Place Books Literary Luncheon series at 1 p.m. March 14 at Ravenna Third Place Books; tickets are $45 and include a copy of the book as well as lunch; 206-525-2347, thirdplacebooks.com.