Tag Archives: Peter Carey

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.

Books to Look Out for in January 2018: Part One

Cover imageRound about now at the fag-end of the literary year, I begin to look forward eagerly to what’s coming next. The first batch of goodies kick starting this January is dominated by Australian writers, beginning with a new Peter Carey which is always something worth looking out for. A Long Way from Home is set in 1953 when the Bobbseys arrive in Bacchus Marsh, Australia. Their neighbour Willie soon becomes drawn into their orbit, persuaded to be their navigator on the Redex Trial, a car race that circumnavigates the continent. ‘As they drive into unknown territory, and cross the outback, Willie will discover the heartrending truth about his own and his country’s past’ say the publishers which sounds very promising.

Less well-known outside Australia than Carey, Helen Garner also has a book out in January. Stories: Collected Short Fiction is being issued in celebration of her seventy-fifth birthday and comprises short stories ‘all told with her characteristic sharpness of observation, honesty and humour. Each one a perfect piece, together they showcase Garner’s mastery of the form’ according to the publishers. I’ve only read The Spare Room but my memories of that are of clean, crisp prose so I have my eye out for this collection.

Michelle de Kretser’s The Life to Come covers many geographical miles taking its readers from Sydney to Paris and Sri Lanka following three people: Pippa, a writer; Celeste embroiled in an affair and Ash who suffered a tragedy in childhood. ‘Driven by riveting stories and unforgettable characters, here is a dazzling meditation on intimacy, loneliness and our flawed perception of other people… …a mesmerising novel [which] feels at once firmly classic and exhilaratingly contemporary’ say the publishers, covering all the bases. I remember very much enjoying de Kretser’s Questions of Travel a few years back.

Around the world to the American South for Eleanor Henderson’s The Twelve Mile Straight, set in Georgia in 1930 where a man is lynched for allegedly raping a white sharecropper’s daughter who has given birth to twins, one clearly white, the other suspiciously brown. Surrounded by gossip, Elma brings up her babies helped by her father and the young black housekeeper who is as close to her as a sister. ‘It soon becomes clear that the ties that bind all of them together are more intricate than any could have imagined. A web of lies begins to collapse around the family, destabilizing their precarious world and forcing all to reckon with the truth’ say the publishers, hinting at all manner of things. This one could easily backfire but it’s such an intriguing premise, a little reminiscent of Laird Hunt’s The Evening Road which I enjoyed very much,  and it’s much praised by Ann Patchett, apparently.

That’s it for the first selection of January’s new novels. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should any take your fancy. Second batch to follow shortly, all with their feet firmly planted in the UK.

Five Australian Novels I’ve Read

Given that I nicked this idea from Kim over at Reading Matters, an Australian blogger, albeit one living in the UK, it seems Cover imageonly fair to round up five books I’ve read by Australians. I should say I’ve read considerably more Australian fiction than that but these are five novels I’ve particularly enjoyed. The last three are linked to a full review.

David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon begins on a sweltering day in the mid-nineteenth century with a strange and ragged figure dancing out of the bush and into the lives of a small group of white settlers. Gemmy Fairley has spent almost sixteen years living with indigenous Australians. At first his eccentricities are greeted with amusement but as the settlers attempt to impose their own kind of order on an environment they see as hostile, many of them find Gemmy’s presence both unsettling and threatening. Where do the loyalties of this man, who is white like them but seems to have more in common with aboriginal people, lie? Every word counts in this slim, dazzlingly vivid novella.

Most British readers would probably name Peter Carey if pushed to come up with an Australian author. I can’t say that I’ve enjoyed all Carey’s novels but one stands out for me, so good I’ve read it three times: the 1988 Booker Prize-winning Oscar and Lucinda. The gawky, misfit, son of a preacher, Oscar Hopkins stumbles upon a method of paying his way through his theology studies, becoming an obsessive but successful gambler, convinced that he’s following God’s will. Equally the misfit, Lucinda Leplastrier, unexpectedly in possession of a large fortune and the proprietor of a glassworks, is well aware of the scandalous nature of her gambling addiction. When these two meet on board a ship bound for Australia, they form an unlikely bond which results in a calamitous misunderstanding as both wager their futures on a fantastical glass church. Set against the backdrop of nineteenth-century colonialism Oscar and Lucinda is a wonderfully witty, vibrant pastiche of a Victorian novel.

Romy Ash’s Floundering begins with Loretta swinging by her parents’ home to pick up her twoCover image sons who she’d left on their doorstep a year ago because ‘things just got complicated’. They’re on the road for days: what’s needed along the way is shoplifted; they sleep in the car; the heat is suffocating; insects bite mercilessly but Tom, who narrates the novel, manages to remain cheerful although increasingly uneasy and at times downright scared. He and his older brother bicker while Loretta – never to be called Mum – chivvies them, often hungover, sometimes drinking at the wheel. They finally arrive at a campsite where Loretta slowly unravels, the heat bounces off everything and their next door neighbour can’t stand to have little boys around. Things go from bad to worse. Through Tom’s voice, Ash manages to capture the panicky fear of an eleven-year-old unsure of what his increasingly chaotic and unpredictable mother will do next.

Dominic Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is a tightly plotted, inventive novel through which run three timelines: the titular Sara’s seventeenth-century narrative, the theft of her painting in the 1950s and the preparations for an exhibition in Sydney in 2000. In 1957, a beautifully executed copy is substituted for the only extant de Vos painting which has been in the de Groot family for centuries. Marty de Groot’s investigations take a somewhat unorthodox route leading him to Ellie Shipley, a PhD student turned conservator who – decades later – will become the acknowledged expert on de Vos, her career celebrated in an exhibition which will have the de Groot’s painting as its centrepiece. Still in a private collection, its owner is delivering the work himself. Then a collector in Leiden offers the same painting to the gallery’s director. Smith deftly weaves the story of the painting and its creator through Ellie and Marty’s narratives, linking all three satisfyingly together in this entertaining literary page-turner.

Cover imageI’ll end this with a novel that I hope grabbed more attention in Australia that it seemed to here in the UK. Jennifer Down’s debut, Our Magic Hour, follows twenty-four-year-old Audrey for just over a year after her best friend Katy kills herself, exploring the devastation of grief and loss through a group of young people, suddenly made aware of their own vulnerability. When her dearest friend dies, it’s Audrey who looks out for everyone else while her partner tries to take care of her. Down’s novel is a masterclass in elegant understatement. Her writing is so restrained that, like Audrey, we’re brought up short when details let slip alert us to her state of mind. Its quiet intimacy draws us into her circle making the loneliness of her life all the more wrenching but it can also be very funny: This could easily have been an overwhelmingly bleak book but Down steers it neatly clear of that. The result is a very fine novel indeed – compassionate, clear-sighted and lovely.

Any Australian novels you’d like to recommend?