A Long Way From Home by author Peter Carey, AO, made it to the Miles Franklin Award long-list this year (2018). Had it been successful, this book would have joined the author’s three other books with this distinction*.
From over a thousand votes and hundreds of reviews on Goodreads, it seems that people either love or hate A Long Way From Home. I love it!
I need to confess now that I fell in love with Peter Carey and his writing many years ago, so this may not be an unbiased review.
This is a complex novel on many levels, set against the background of the 1954 Redex Trial around Australia. The Redex Trial captured the imagination of many Australians, including my parents, who followed it with much interest.
There had been several similar trials which covered less ground, but this was the big one. It circumnavigated the whole of the continent over often unmade roads in cars never built for such punishment.
Titch Bobs, a car salesman, and his wife, Irene, enter the race. They invite their neighbour, Willie Bachhuber a 26-year-old disgraced school-teacher, to navigate. They travel from Bacchus Marsh, thirty miles from Melbourne, to the start of the Trial at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
In A Long Way From Home, Peter Carey presents a page-turner which twists and turns, often at a dizzying rate. As the back-cover blurb says,
This thrilling, high-speed story starts in one way and then takes you someplace else.
To that I would add, not once but many times.
Carey shows a side of Australia not many are privileged to see as well as a slice of social history of post-World War II years.
The description of those years rings true to someone of my generation, who grew up in the 1940s and 1950s in Australia. The Bobs’ everyday life, with its chooks and the shed, radio and the Jack Davy Quiz Show, aspirations and gender-roles, had me chuckling.
Carey’s considerable research weaves seamlessly through the story. But I suspect he drew on his memory for descriptions of life in suburban Bacchus Marsh where he grew up.
Colonisation, Aboriginal history and the Stolen Generations also play major roles, along with the adoption of Aboriginal children by white people too afraid to tell the kids about their origin. Painful inter-generational conflict and family secrets play out in different ways. Carey skillfully foretells essential parts of the story as I found when I reread the book.
The two narrators, Irene and Willie, tell the stories in parallel, adding to the richness of the novel. I found myself laughing, crying, nodding with sudden recognition and filled with exhilaration as I read.
Not only does the novel often start somewhere and end up somewhere else. So, too, do delicious sentences like these.
Anyone can now tell me I had ignored a valuable teaching moment, but Bennett lived in a world where the truth would die of thirst.
My sad bachelor kitchen was piled with dead and dying dishes, the roasted leg of lamb – what shade of green was that?
I knew the way without his help, up the fire escape, along the mesh-floored catwalk high above the leafy yard, where, between the mud-caked Redex cars, a solitary vomiter was hard at work.
On one level, A Long Way From Home is an easy read. However, closer perusal rewards the reader with depth and fullness of meaning. The magic of Carey’s writing owes much to his deftness with language.
Who will enjoy A Long Way From Home?
This book will please people who enjoy a rollicking good story told at a fast pace. Older readers will enjoy the memories it evokes. And if yo want fiction that shows the social history of the 1950s in Australia, you could probably do no better than this.
*Carey was awarded the Miles Franklin Award for Bliss (1981); Oscar and Lucinda, (1989); and Jack Maggs (1998). True History of the Kelly Gang shortlisted for this award in 2001 and Theft: A Love Story in 2007. He won the Booker Prize on two occasions, along with many other awards.