Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 14, 2017

A Long Way from Home, by Peter Carey

Of all the novels I’ve read by two-time Booker winner Peter Carey, this one is the best.  I romped through it, trying fruitlessly to slow down my reading so that it would never end.  Fast-paced, utterly engaging and full of trademark Carey eccentrics, A Long Way from Home is a comic novel which also reveals the slow dawning of Australia’s recognition of its real history.

A Long Way From Home is a story of an Australia long gone.  It’s set in the 1950s, an era of unbridled optimism and prosperity, when there was full employment.  Women were expected to conform to a domestic role, and Australia’s Black History was decades away from being being acknowledged.  Australia’s enduring love affair with the motor car was taking off because ordinary people could afford to buy one, and the branding of cars was beginning to be linked to male identity.

The diminutive Titch Bobs and his feisty wife Irene are a couple determined to get ahead.  Titch is one of the best car salesmen in Australia, and to get away from his overbearing father Dan, he wants to set up his own Ford dealership in Bacchus Marsh, about 60km north-east of Melbourne (and also Peter Carey’s birthplace.)  When those efforts are sabotaged, Irene wangles their way towards Ford’s great rival Holden, and as part of their efforts to raise the profile of their business, they decide to enter the Redex Reliability Trial.

The 1950s was the era of the original Redex Trials which captivated Australia, but these round-Australia endurance events were still spoken of with reverence even in the 1970s when I was first learning to drive on dirt roads.  The trials, following a route of about 10,000 miles (15,000km) through some of the harshest country in the land, were supposed to prove the reliability of the ordinary car when driven in the worst conditions an Australian could ever expect to encounter.  In those early days the competitors weren’t professionals: I could use the term mum-and-dad teams except that female competitors were rare.  Those were the days when the ‘family car’ was driven by dads who considered the car was theirs alone, and women mostly didn’t even have a driving licence.

Although they were allowed to have mesh headlight protectors and bull bars, the cars were not supposed to be modified, and there were strict rules about the kind of repairs that were allowed.  I bet Carey’s depiction of the skulduggery that went on behind the scenes is based on authentic events… having done a bit of rally driving myself (as a terrified navigator) I can certainly vouch for the authenticity of Carey’s breath-taking sequences that take place on outback roads that barely merit the name.  How the drivers managed to stay in their seats on that back-breaking terrain without full-harness seat belts I do not know…

Viewers please be aware that the commentary in this 1954 short film includes a brief snippet which uses archaic words to describe Indigenous spectators.

As we know from his earliest novels, Carey is a genius at quirky characterisation, and Willie Bachhuber is one of his best.  Willie (whose German surname means a peasant who owned some land) is a schoolteacher with a past and present that are equally troubled.  To evade paying maintenance for a child he thinks is the fruit of his wife’s adultery, he has fled from his hasty marriage and his own estranged parent, and is batching next door to Irene and Titch in Bacchus Marsh. A mild-mannered man who participates in a weekly radio quiz show (which is rigged so that he is an unassailable champion), Willie lives an otherwise quiet life with his books and his chooks until (gosh!) he is suspended from his job for hanging an obnoxious student out of a second-storey window.  (Not wishing to malign my own profession, but having worked in close proximity to one of the old-school ‘Tech’ schools where to my dismay I witnessed what seemed to be routine manhandling, I don’t actually find this so hard to believe).

Willie appeals to the Harry Huthnance the headmaster (whose surname is also a joke: it means the high valley, the valley of delusion, or the valley of sorrow or grief), and this excerpt explains something that baffled me when I had to do a deeply tedious school project about wool when we were meant to be learning about the exports of South America:

‘I will have to suspend you, Will.  Please don’t frown like that.’
‘With pay?
He gave me a sharp look and I knew what he was thinking.  Bachhuber is rich.  He gets these big prizes from his quiz how.
‘You wouldn’t believe the bloody paperwork involved in a tribunal.’
‘What sort of suspension is it?’
‘Maybe you could think about the wool syllabus while you’re off?’
It was typical that he would wish to trade with me.  The wool syllabus was his chore, not mine.  It was bureaucratic not pedagogic.  He had been directed to remedy the total ignorance of high school students on the issue of wool and its vital history in the history of the state. The source of this correspondence was the state education department in Melbourne, but what political forces were behind this aberration?  Who would know? (p.28-9)

The novel is full of authentic nostalgia like this.

Anyway, you have to read this hilarious novel to see how it is that Willie comes to join Irene and Titch as their navigator in the Redex Trial.

The narration is inspired.  It (almost entirely) alternates between Irene and Willie, providing both a perspective on a 1950s marriage and the discovery of Australia’s then hidden history.  We see how Titch, who in the beginning knows that Irene is the brains behind the outfit, quickly reverts to ‘type’ when he’s with other men.  She is the one who provides the inheritance money to fund his dreams, but he excludes her from decision-making.

So I drove him to the station and parked the car and walked hand in hand onto the platform and I wrapped his tartan scarf around his neck and buttoned it inside his camel overcoat.  I kissed him.  He kissed me.  It was perhaps not the best occasion to say what I said, but I said it anyhow.  We should not wait for Ford’s approval.  We were better off without them.  We had arrived in the era of ‘Australia’s Own Car’ i.e. General Motors Holden. It was now Holden versus Ford and Ford were set to lose.  We should tell Ford to jump in the lank, snaffle the Bacchus Marsh Holden dealership while it was still available.

Titch listened to my blasphemy.  He did not ask now I could be so confident of getting a Holden dealership.  he said he would think about what I had said but clearly he couldn’t wait to get away from my opinions.  (p.32)

(BTW you can clearly see that Carey has vivid memories of just how cold it can get in Bacchus Marsh!)

Irene is #NoSpoilers much more than a co-driver but when celebrity beckons he sidelines her and just wants her to look decorative in a pretty dress (instead of the overalls that were so practical on a rugged journey).  We see the sacrifice she makes by handing over the care of her children to a sister she’s not fond of, seeking out phone boxes in every small town so that she can make expensive trunk calls to make sure they’re ok.  We share her embarrassment at knowing that every word she says will be relayed round town by shameless telephonists at both ends of the connection.  (I remember that, before STD (subscriber trunk dialling) arrived in the 1970s!)

Willie, OTOH, is in one way a metaphor for an Australia emerging into multiculturalism: he was born in Australia but people are suspicious about his identity because of his German surname and his Lutheran pastor father.  His estrangement from his family means that he is like thousands of rootless young male migrants living a lonely life and yearning for love in a society not ready to accept him.  Other aspects of his identity I will leave for the reader to discover by reading the book…

Willie also has another role in the novel – to reveal Australia’s Black History without didacticism but rather as a natural by-product of his curiosity.  As an autodidact with a vested interest in learning obscure facts (for the quiz show) he discovers anthropological events from his favourite journal ‘Oceania’ that become real for him as he travels the rally route.

This excerpt is from when Willie is trying to discreetly distance himself from the shenanigans in his neighbours’ garden:

I retreated into Oceania No 3, 1953. There I found a proposed survey of the archaeological structure of Melton East, just ten miles from Bacchus Marsh.
An owl cried mopoke.
I might have expected archaeology in Greece or Mesopotamia, never in the paddocks of dreary Melton. But here it was suggested that an investigation of the common or garden Kororoit Creek (which I would cross tomorrow on the train) would unearth ‘relics of the indigenous population in abundance’.  Thus an educated man, a schoolteacher, was surprised.  (p.49)

It’s my usual practice to cite other reviews to complement mine, but I can’t find one that doesn’t reveal a major spoiler.  Seriously, I do recommend that you ignore them all and just let the book unfold and work its magic.

Author: Peter Carey
Title: A Long Way from Home
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton (Penguin Random House) 2017
ISBN: 9780143787075
Review copy courtesy of Penguin Random House

Available from Fishpond: A Long Way from Home


Responses

  1. Completely agree with you Lisa. I raced through it too. Carey at his best. And I reckon that glorious final sentence will go down as one of the finest endings in Australian literature. Cheers, John.

  2. You’ve thoroughly whetted my appetite for this one. I think it’ll be arriving in the UK in the New Year.

    • A great book to look forward to. We are so lucky to have writers like this:)

  3. This does sound rather special. Ive not read as many Carey books as you have but have enjoyed what I’ve experienced so far

    • *chuckle* I’ve still got a couple up my sleeve because I never did get round to reading Amnesia, and *blush* I haven’t read True History of the Kelly Gang, the one that won the Booker!

  4. Oh good, a new book by Carey. I haven’t disliked one of his yet, though I haven’t read them all.

    • Just think, people who don’t read books never experience that particular form of pleasurable anticipation that we feel when one of our favourite authors has a new book.

  5. This sounds like great fun. Will pick up a copy.

  6. I’ll have to add this one to the TBR.

  7. This sounds a good way for me to discover Carey and read about Australia.
    I wasn’t too tempted by his other novels despite all recommendations but I think I’d like this one. Thanks

    • Will it come out in French, do you think?

      • Not before end of 2018, I think. I pre-ordered it on the kindle. I will have it in January.

        • *chuckle* I will be on hand to translate any slang you have trouble with:)

  8. I’ll read it, though I couldn’t say I’m looking forward to it, Carey became too pretentious for me a long time ago – and I really dislike his Ned Kelly – but this return to the roots he abandoned half way through Illywhacker may at least render him readable.

    • Well (you know this) I’ve had my ups and downs with Carey too, but this one… this one is just plain terrific:)

  9. The only book by Carey I’ve read is Oscar and Lucinda, which I liked a lot. But this one sounds like a lot of fun!

    • I’m going to hear him tonight at the Word for Word NF Festival at Geelong, so it will be interesting to hear what he has to say:)
      (It’s peculiar, the way we expect authors, who’ve tried to say what it is they want to say in a book, to say the same thing but differently when we go to see them in person.)

      • I was listening to an interview last night and the interviewer kept saying “you say in the book” and the author responded each time, “no, the narrator says”.

      • Haha, true! I hope it was a great night!

        • It was, I’m about to blog it now:)


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