On the road to an awakening

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Cushla McKinney reviews Peter Carey's A Long Way from Home, published by Penguin Random House.

After more than three decades of presenting Australian stories and histories to the world, award-winning novelist Peter Carey has finally reached the point in his life where he feels able to explore the colonial legacy of his country, a subject upon which, until now, he has remained silent.

The resulting novel, A Long Way from Home, is possibly the best thing he has written for years.

The story opens in the 1950s in the small Victorian town of Bacchus Marsh, where Irene Bobs and her husband Titch, a successful Ford salesman, hope to establish an authorised dealership.

As far as Irene is concerned their life is pretty much perfect.

The only problem is Titch's manipulative father Dan, who would do anything to sabotage his prospects.

Knowing this, Irene is secretly negotiating with the newly-established Holden motor company at the same time Titch is talking to Ford and, when Dan establishes his own franchise, the Bobs sign up with General Motors.

But Titch has ambitions of his own and, unbeknownst to his wife, has entered them into the Redex Trial, an 18-day endurance race around Australia designed to test the reliability and resilience of the everyday ``family car''.

Although dismayed at her husband's recklessness, Irene reluctantly agrees to be his co-driver and they recruit their next-door neighbour, disgraced ``chalk-and-talker'' and quiz-show champion Willie Bachuber, as navigator.

The subsequent journey marks the end of innocence for them all.

This first section is domestic in tone and establishes the history of and relationships between Irene, Titch, Dan and Willie.

The second part of the story follows the race and the parting of the ways between the characters, broadening out to examine the ugly side of Australian identity.

A series of unpleasant circumstances leave Irene as the sole representative of Bobs Motors in the trial, albeit unacknowledged (for how could a mere woman possibly succeed in a man's race?). Meanwhile Willie is transported to a remote outback sheep station deep into the heart of the outback where he is employed to provide the children of the indentured Aboriginal labourers with a "proper'' education.

Willie instead invites the tribal elders to share their own knowledge, mapping out the indigenous experience of colonisation, and in the process discovering aspects of his own history and identity that have been deliberately withheld from him.

As a member of the social and political majority, Carey is well aware of the risk of being charged with cultural misappropriation, but sees it as his job as a writer to acknowledge that he is a beneficiary of genocide and manages, I think, to imagine himself into the role of other without "making a dick of himself''.

In part this is because he mines his own life to inform the story; although he emphasises the novel is not autobiographical, his parents were GM dealers in Bacchus Marsh, and he relied on family knowledge to provide details about everything from franchising to the intricacies of dismantling a Holden air cleaner.

Ultimately what works so well is the novel's intimacy.

By focusing on Irene and Willie, who pass the narrative back and forth, chapter by chapter, Carey explores everything from the ingrained sexism of the time to the physical and cultural genocide of Australia's Aboriginal population with minimal editorialisation.

The closest he comes to inserting himself into the narrative is a coda in which Willie's son summarises his father's attempts to preserve and pass on his discoveries as ``an encryption whose function is to insist that our mother country is a foreign land whose language we have not yet learned to speak''.

And, although not necessary for the story (which could have ended just as readily at the end of the preceding chapter) this final judgement acknowledges a truth that A Long Way Home goes some way to ameliorate.

Cushla McKinney is a Dunedin scientist.

Last week’s winners

Winners of last week’s giveaway, Free Food For Millionaires, by Min Jin Lee, courtesy of  Harper Collins were: Lesley Burns, Barry Kan and Carole Bezett, of Dunedin, Clara Tapp, of Cromwell, and Lynley Anderson, of Queenstown.




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