Fiction – paperback; Faber & Faber; 336 pages; 2018.
Earlier this year, in the depths of winter, I went to Dublin for a long weekend, specifically to see Peter Carey in conversation with Joseph O’Connorat the “Pepper Cannister Church” on Upper Mount Street. It was essentially the Irish launch of his latest novel, A Long Way from Home, which has since been longlisted for the 2018 Miles Franklin Literary Award.
It was an entertaining evening — albeit very, very cold (even with the heating on, the church was akin to sitting in a giant refrigerator and after an hour in the pews I could barely feel my feet because they’d turned numb with the cold). He largely spoke about the background behind the novel, which is based on the Redex Australia Trial, a road rally dating from 1953 that circumnavigated Australia and was open to pro and amateur drivers in unmodified cars unsuited to the tough terrain.
Carey’s own family ran a Holden car dealership in Bacchus Marsh, the country town where he is from, so he shared a lot of funny tales about cars and this particular rally, which he followed obsessively as a young boy — among other topics, including politics, travel, writing and why he’d waited so long to write about Australia’s indigenous history.
This novel — his 14th — is based very much on the Redex Trial and focuses on a trio of eccentric characters that enter the event, before it morphs into an intriguing exploration of a different kind of race — that of white Australia’s crimes against its indigenous population.
The story, set in the early 1950s, is told in the first person from two different character’s points of view in alternating chapters. (Occasionally, it has to be said, this is confusing, especially if you’ve put the book down and then come back to it and can’t remember which character is telling their side of the story; their voices don’t feel sufficiently different to be able to distinguish them easily.)
Those characters are Irene Bobs, a headstrong woman who is married to the best car salesman (a short man called Titch) in the whole of south-eastern Australia, and Willie Bachhuber, a tall, lanky teacher who’s ruling the airwaves as a quiz show king on a national radio programme. The pair are neighbours and strike up an unlikely friendship.
When the Bobs enter the Redex Trial — in a bid to become famous and boost car sales — they convince Bachhuber, who has been fired from his job after an unfortunate incident with a student, to join them as their navigator. It’s a perfect match, given Bachhuber’s love of maps, but the stresses and strain of the race, puts stresses and strains on the ability of everyone to get along.
But before things go completely pear-shaped, Carey does an expert job of conveying the thrill — and danger — of the race, yet he also scatters enough clues to suggest the novel — when it truly hits its stride about two-thirds of the way in — is more than just an adventurous tale about fast driving.
For instance, early on in the race, Irene takes a roadside toilet break and stumbles upon an unmarked graveyard of exposed bones crumbling to dust (“There were so many, they must be blacks”) and, out of shock, returns to the vehicle with the bullet-ridden skull of a young boy. In another example, blonde-haired Bachhuber, raised by a Lutheran pastor, recalls the shame of discovering that his wife had given birth to a black baby — and then abandoned both.
Did I like this book? I’m not too sure. In its immediate afterglow, I’m feeling slightly ambivalent about it, but perhaps it will grow on me?
I love Carey’s prose, his long, descriptive sentences and quirky turns of phrase, the Australianness (is that a word?) of it all and his ability to capture period detail so extraordinarily well. His characters are so strong and I love his feminist slant in this one (Irene is as good, if not better, at rally driving than all the male competitors but is constantly mocked and put down by them; even the media, which sees her as their darling to begin with, fall out of love with her and start questioning who’s looking after her children while she’s in the race.)
But the pacing, I think, is slightly odd. When Bachhuber finds himself stuck in the outback, the energy of the narrative seems to dissipate. (I appreciate that I’m being a bit vague here, but I don’t want to give away plot spoilers.) It doesn’t really pick up again and I could find my own interest waning. Yet, for what it’s worth, I very much liked this section of the novel — Bachhuber’s inward spiritual journey, for want of a better description — but felt the change in pace jarring from everything that had gone before.
I think a good way to describe my feelings about A Long Way from Home is this: I appreciate the elements that make it up (the characters, the prose, the setting, the issues), but I’m not sure everything gelled together as one seamless whole. Perhaps it’s a case of the novel simply being less than the sum of its parts…
This is my 3rd book for the Miles Franklin Literary Award 2018 and my 2nd for #20booksofsummer. I bought it in January at the Peter Carey literary event in Dublin and then queued up in a freezing-cold church to have it signed. When I got to the signing table I made the mistake of telling him he wasn’t the only Australian in the room (cos, you know, the event was in Dublin and full of Irish people). He gave a wry smile and his publicist, standing beside him, said in an oh-so condescending voice “he never is”.