A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey: Finding your place in the world

Cover imageI can’t say that I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Peter Carey but a new novel by him is always worth investigating. My absolute favourite is Oscar and Lucinda, so much so that I’ve read it three times. I can’t quite put my finger on why but there’s something about the tone of A Long Way From Home that reminded me of it despite their very different subject matters. Carey’s new novel follows the Bobs family, who have moved to Bacchus Marsh in an effort to escape Titch Bobs’ overbearing father, and their neighbour Willie Bachhuber who finds himself navigator in the Bobs’ attempt to win the inaugural 6,500-mile Redex Trial in 1953.

Irene Bobs has gritted her teeth for years, putting up with Dan Bobs’ constant humiliation of the son she fell in love with when he was charged with giving her mother driving lessons. A champion car salesman, Titch has finally been persuaded to get himself out from under his father’s influence. Irene is convinced the future lies with Australian Holdens and thinks she’s found a way to secure a dealership but Titch is a Ford man through and through. When she finds that Titch has used her inheritance to enter the Redex Trial, Irene is determined to be his co-driver. Titch approaches their neighbour, a ‘chalker and talker’, to be their navigator. Willie’s star as king of the local radio quiz show has waned thanks to an unwise dalliance with his female competitor. Having recently and uncharacteristically hung one of his students out of a window by his ankles, he’s at a loose end. This unlikely trio sets off on one of the toughest rally routes in the world only to find that Dan Bobs has also entered, determined to humiliate his son yet again. What ensues is a challenge in which the Bobs’ marriage will be tested to the limits and Willie will be forced to question everything he knows about himself.

Carey tackles themes of identity, racism, sexism and Australia’s shameful treatment of its indigenous people, all framed within the context of a riveting piece of storytelling with a rich vein of humour running through it. The novel is narrated alternately by Irene and Willie whose voices ring out loud and clear: Irene the determined woman, resourceful and capable; Willie, the schoolteacher, head crammed with trivia whose world is turned upside down.  Executed with all the deft skill you’d expect from a mature and seasoned author, it’s a novel that seems to come from the heart. The casual prejudice apparently endemic in 1950s Australia runs through the novel culminating in an exploration of the heart-wrenching tragedy of ethnic cleansing and its consequences – tough territory for a white Australian who has not lived in his native country for some time. For me, the balance between the cheerful if challenged Bobs and the revelations which call Willie’s identity and world view into question is well judged. Australians, indigenous or otherwise, may feel differently.

18 thoughts on “A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey: Finding your place in the world”

  1. Well, I’ve only read Oscar and Lucinda twice but I would say it’s my favourite Carey as well. I have this on reservation from the library and am really looking forward to reading it. As you say, a new Carey is always something to look forward to.

      1. Wow, just been reading some of the reviews on Goodreads. Oscar and Lucinda seems to be a book that divides opinion. Rave reviews from some and then other people who hated it or DNF’d it.

  2. Oscar and Lucinda is the only Peter Carey I’ve read, and that was a while ago now. I think this is the second postive review I’ve read of this book!

  3. I’m looking forward to reading this. I went to Dublin last weekend and saw him in conversation with Joseph O’Connor. It was a really interesting talk. He said there were similarities with Oscar and Lucinda because both books are about where Aboriginal stories and white Christian stories intersect…

    1. That is interesting! Thanks for that, Kim. I’ll be interested to see what you think of it. It occurred to me just after I posted the review that the book’s title could also refer to Carey’s own removal from Australia.

  4. I too have struggled with Carey, I loved Oscar and Lucinda but The History of the Kelly Gang and Jack Maggs left me a bit cold. Not sure if the subject matter of this one appeals that much really. Though the characters of Irene and Willie sound great.

    1. Those are precisely the ones I gave up, Ali. I wasn’t thrilled by the idea of a car rally either but I’d say this one’s much more like Oscar and Lucinda than his other novels.

  5. I read Oscar and Lucinda years ago and I really liked it but for some reason haven’t picked up a Carey since. It sounds like the similarities here mean this could be a good way back into his novels for me.

  6. I loved Oscar and Lucinda when I read it, years ago; I’d forgotten about the Kelly Gang until I read heavenali’s comment but think I enjoyed that once I’d got used to the strange punctuation (if I’m right in remembering that?). There was one about a parrot – just looked it up, Parrot and Olivier in America! – that I struggled with. After reading your review I think I’ll be trying this one! Incidentally, it’s always good to hear one of the Radio 4 (UK) review programmes shortly after reading one of yours – I quickly identify what they are talking about, as happened with the Saturday Review last night!

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