Peter Carey’s latest novel is a merciless excavation of Australian history

13 January 2018

9:00 AM

13 January 2018

9:00 AM

More than 25 years ago, Peter Carey co-wrote one of the most audacious road movies ever made, Wim Wenders’s Until the End of the World, which circles the globe before concluding with a long interlude in the Australian outback. While the film was in the mode of speculative science fiction and Carey’s captivating A Long Way from Home is a fiercely realist story set in the 1950s, this new book nonetheless shares both that earlier work’s fascination with outsiders whose lives spin off in unpredictable directions, and as a profound reverence for Australia’s interior and its people.

Outside Melbourne, in the small town of Bacchus Marsh, Willie Bachhuber — a disgraced former schoolteacher and radio quiz-show regular who develops a passion for mapmaking — and his neighbour Irene Bobs — diminutive mother of two and wife of Titch Bobs, one of the best car salesmen in the country — find their lives entangled when Titch decides to enter the Redex Reliability Trial. Although Irene is a better driver than any man, Titch knows they need a navigator to guide them through the punishing 18-day rally that circumnavigates Australia; and Willie, at a loose end after being fired for dangling a racist boy out of his classroom window, is their man.

This is a novel of two dominant moods, split almost evenly down the middle. In the beginning we barrel along anarchically, marvelling at the elegance of Carey’s plotting and the explosive joy of the storytelling, from Irene’s and Willie’s perspectives alternately. They are both misfits in society — Irene too masculine for her gelignite-throwing prankster father-in-law Dangerous Dan Bobs, and Willie too bookish to be anything other than an outsider in the provinces. Carey’s description of the Redex Trial is never less than gripping, evoking something akin to a mid-century Mad Max aesthetic in which Titch’s suburban Holden FJ is transformed into ‘a brutal beast, four-eyed, with mesh protected headlights’ and ‘massive bull bar’.

It is in the midst of the rally itself that a sense of melancholy takes over, shifting into a moving meditation on multiple forms of paternal failure and the culture of racism that have shaped modern Australia. To give away more would risk spoiling the genuine pleasures and pathos Carey has orchestrated, with intricately mapped narrative twists that are subtly foreshadowed yet still surprising. As the characters drive deeper into the interior, we become increasingly aware of the corrosive effects of the government’s pernicious racial policies, which have removed ‘half-caste’ Aboriginal children from their families and land.

Like Willie Bachhuber, who tries to create maps that depict not only place and location, but also the sedimented layers of time and history, the ‘lethal patch-work’ of settler colonialism ‘on top of the true tribal lands’, Carey turns the novel into a staging ground for his own merciless excavation of Australian history.

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