I 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.