Sunday 8 December 2019

A detour into a nation's cruel past

Fiction: A Long Way From Home, Peter Carey, Faber & Faber, hardback, 368 pages, €22.70

Light and shade: Australian author Peter Carey
Light and shade: Australian author Peter Carey
A Long Way from Home by Peter Carey

Hilary A White

Booker-winner Peter Carey's 14th novel sets off with pace and wit as a couple embark on a Cannonball Run through the Outback before veering into darker territory

It takes considerable skill to begin a story as one thing and then warp it into something strikingly different in look, sound and gravity. It's even harder to make this conjuring act look like part of a grand plan that was just always going to turn out thus.

Beginning his professional life as one of the hotter properties in the burgeoning advertising industry in his native Australia, 74-year-old Peter Carey surely knows a thing or two about narrative sleight-of-hand. Those subtle distractions and reveals that hook people subliminally from billboards and radio commercials seem part of the tapestry of the twice-Booker-winner's 14th novel.

Bacchus Marsh, a rural town just north of Melbourne, was where both Carey himself and this extraordinary new tale begin life. Titch and Irene Bobs are at a crossroads. He is a dapper, diminutive car dealer with a top sales record looking to open his own dealership and capitalise on the dramatic change that the family automobile is about to have on society in 1950s Australia. Irene has family money that she is willing to put into the venture that could bring security to their young family's future. With Ford looking unlikely to get into bed with Titch, an opportunity comes their way in the form of General Motors Holden and its shifty rep Dunstan. Carey's own mother and father had a General Motors dealership, it turns out.

The colonial frontier spirit awakens in the colourful couple and they agree to launch the GMH deal by entering the Redex Australia Trial, a Cannonball Run-style endurance race around the continent that stood out for testing everyday vehicles on incredibly tough terrains. In 1953, when the first trial of its kind was staged, Australia didn't really have a proper road network, and in those places where it did, conditions could be ruinous to an ordinary car. Naturally, the contests attracted huge public interest while they were held.

To complete the trial - in a vehicle customised with loud advertising for the Bobs' new venture - the duo will need a navigator. Enter reserved next-door neighbour Willie Bachhuber, a "disgraced" schoolteacher, cartographer and former quiz-show wunderkind whom the Bobs take something of a shine to. They finally set off, leaving the children in the care of Irene's superbly difficult sister Beverly. If group dynamics, treacherous surfaces and homesickness weren't enough to deal with on the open road, Titch's dastardly, explosives-loving father Dangerous Dan is also competing and approaching in the rear-view mirror. "Drat, and double-drat," he might as well be barking.

And then, just as you're finally settling into Carey's athletic wit and the dashing pace of it all, A Long Way From Home takes a sharp left-hand turn of the kind you'd imagine those fragile automobiles were forced to on occasion half a century ago. The on-the-road shenanigans, ailing air filters, dashboard bickering and the gung-ho determination of Irene take a backseat. Calmly and organically, the focus turns to matters of truth, origin and injustice.

The narration toggles throughout between Irene and Willie, the former being forced to look to confront her future and the latter being sucked backwards into his own murky beginnings. The road reveals things to both characters by way of the perceptions and prejudices that they encounter in dustbowl outposts that are a world away from their humming societies thousands of miles south. They might not even have to look that far, in fact.

Carey, who has made the complexities of his homeland a central facet of his writing, wants you to question things and he achieves this aim with disarming rigour. Legions of people from this country flock down to Australia every year for fun in the sun and economic relief. They find both, all the while tucked out of the way is another Australia altogether, one of a bloody and cruel legacy that is only recently being addressed with the seriousness it deserves. Ethnic cleansing. Mass graves. Rape. The Stolen Generation. Carey is unflinching.

Meanwhile, maps - the rash drawing-up of them, their imposing authority and the physical and spiritual layers they may be covering - become a surging theme.

On first reflection, you might not say that the start and finish of A Long Way From Home's narrative horseshoe are perfectly in harmony, given the comical bulge between. But the truth is that they are just enough to make you reconsider all that's gone before in the story. For this reason, a second revision of the book is something that could prove very interesting. Carey, after all, is too long in the tooth for this to be a case of him setting out on one tack and then his priorities undergoing a drastic change en route.

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