Peter Carey’s fiction career spans from 1981 when his first novel Bliss was published. Since then, he’s written another 13 novels. Some of them have been wonderful, earning him two Booker prizes along the way (for Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang), while others have been, well, less than wonderful (Parrot and Olivier in America, in particular, comes to mind). His latest, A Long Way from Home, is almost a metaphor for his oeuvre – some of it is wonderful, some of it less so.
It’s a road trip story. Or part of it is. The journey starts in Bacchus Marsh, ’33 miles from Melbourne’, in the 1950s (a time and place where the author grew up), and doesn’t leave there for a good third of the book. Carey puts careful detail into the setup, introducing us to the three main characters: Irene, ‘Titch’ Bobs and Willie Bachhuber.
Irene is small and, perhaps unsurprisingly, so is her husband Titch. Willie is their 27-year-old neighbour who isn’t so small, but between them they weigh less than the average driver and navigator team in the famous Redex Trial. The Redex is a race of sorts, an endurance trip around Australia that is won not by the fastest crew but by the team who comes in closest to the time given by the organisers. Despite being a remarkable car salesman, Titch persuades his wife and neighbour to leave their lives behind (and kids in Irene and Titch’s case) in the hope that participating in the Redex will help to promote Titch’s new car showroom.
Willie, having been suspended from his schoolteacher position after hanging a child out a window, has little to lose, but this is more his journey as he discovers his German heritage is not quite as pure as he’d been led to believe most of his life. The story touches on colonialism, racism, sexism and other ‘issues’ relevant today but which were a part of everyday life in 1950s Australia. At times, though, it feels like Carey shoehorned these elements into the narrative, perhaps precisely to make the story relevant today, but his commentary is a little half-hearted, and much of it could have been cut without making much of a difference to the main thread of the story. But then, that would have made this an even thinner read.
Once the race gets going, Carey is in his element, especially when describing the engineering feats the drivers have to pull off to get through the rough bush terrain in one piece and on time. But even here, one outback town is pretty much like every other, with its smallminded attitudes and rules that them from down south won’t ever understand.
The big reveal is a surprise, but after that, the race and the narrative struggle to the end of what was, on the whole, a pretty bumpy ride. Carey is the kind of writer who could be the first to win the Booker prize three times, but I don’t think this one will trouble the competition too much.
Any Cop?: Carey fans will be used to his ups and downs and won’t be put off by the frailties of A Long Way from Home, but if you’ve never read anything by this truly talented author before, start with one of his more acclaimed works.