I began the year reading Peter Carey’s latest book A Long Way From Home. That it was advertised as a thrilling high-speed story appealed to me and the fact it was written by a favourite Australian author. It’s set in the 1950’s: a time I remember as a young child; though of New Zealand, not Australia.
I was still carrying around the impact of an earlier novel of Peter Carey’s I’d read, called His Illegal self, in which the main character is a boy called Che, whom Carey portrays with utter authenticity. As I opened A Long Way From Home, I wondered whether I’d be equally impacted by a character, and how the story would affect me.
Carey is so good at placing the reader just where he wants them, right from the start. In this case, it is Bacchus Marsh, 30miles from Melbourne, and where the Bobs’ family have just set up house. There’s car-mad Irene, her husband Titch and their children, with their ‘pink appley cheeks’ they’d inherited from their dad. We learn that Irene loathes ‘Dangerous Dan’ Bobs, her despicable father ‘n law and is not too thrilled about her ‘experienced’ sister Beverly either.
It is the last paragraph of this first chapter which compelled me to read on. Irene Bobs is in the back yard of her new home, observed by the neighbour, Willie Bauchhuber. described expressively by Irene as: …‘a fair-haired bachelor with a strong jaw and absent bottom, cinched in trousers, crumbly face, deep frown marks on his forehead. He found me in my overalls with a spanner in my hand. Himself, he held a colander, some sort of gift, and I saw the sad fond way he had with kids … We had no plans to take advantage of him’. Of course I needed to find out if they did.
Carey knows how to grab his readers. He knows about pace.
This is a thrilling high-speed story as the book sleeve announces, with the Bobs entering a tough road race around over ten thousand miles of Australia’s outback, with Willie Bauchhuber, no less, as navigator. By now we know that Willie is a quiz show champ and a failed school teacher, with more than average mapping ability. It is this wonderful layering of character which sets Carey apart and gives the reader so much to draw on.
Then Carey’s cleverness steps up a few notches. I thought I knew the characters before the race, but as the race progresses at breakneck speed and tensions tighten, different facets of their personalities and backgrounds are revealed. We are led into parts of Australia most of us have never been, or likely to go. We meet other drivers caught up in the mad frenzied competition; hear the explosive language of mechanics and cars; experience exhaustion, in-fighting, the roads’ troughs, dust, mud and bone-wrecking rock. And in Irene Bob’s words: ‘Through Blackfella country no Holden ever crossed before.’
There is a surprise turn of events, which does involve ‘blackfellas’, which I found somewhat hard to credit. But to tell you anymore about where the story takes us, is to tell too much. Suffice to say, that no car or person finishes the race in quite the state they entered it.