I have been to Australia twice, once on a holiday with a mishap and a second time on a holiday without a mishap. Either way, despite meeting hordes of people, I have failed to figure out the archetypal Australian. I know that, like in Canada, the cities are clustered around the southern edge of the country, while up north, and in the centre, there are vast uninhabited, wild spaces. So, when Peter Carey’s latest novel, A long Way from Home, came out, I thought the subject was worth exploring: in 1954, a couple embarks on a road race, the Redex Trial, across the country. With them, they have a navigator, a former school teacher. So far, so good – travel and adventure in one.
Road races and car enthusiasts
The plot is based on the historical facts of the real Redex Trial, named after the REDeX brand of oil additive, which took place more or less annually from 1953 to 1998. In 1953, it was 10,460 km long, and in 1998, 18,500 km. It was run under various names, but the last one was called the PlayStation Rally Round Australia. The idea of the road race was to test the reliability of the cars, not their speed or the endurance of the drivers.
Up to about the last part of the book, called A Fork in the Road (p. 203) it is just that: – a straight-forward depiction of some interesting, car-crazy characters, a fairly stable marriage, the road race from remote place to even more remote place, and the Australian automotive industry of the time. There are two narrators, who take turns in the chapters – “Mrs. Irene Bobs”, the diminutive wife of the dapper and diminutive car salesman, “Mr. Titch Bobs”, and “Willie Bachhuber”, a neighbour, their navigator, and apparently an educated fellow.
Irene wants to get her husband out from underneath the thumb of his over-bearing sod of a father. Since Titch is a very successful car salesman for his father’s dealership, they decide to open their own car dealership, and to get the money for it, they decide to enter – and win – the Redex Trial.
Willie, on the other hand, is out of a job because he hung a spiteful, racist teenager out of the classroom window by his legs. So he is available to tackle the Redex. He is reigning champion of a general knowledge radio quiz show called “Nothing to Lose”, yet practically broke, and lives surrounded by books, particularly maps. His love life is non-existent, he has a funny build and funny looks, but he is a very good map reader and navigator, and he has nice manners. What could possibly go wrong? Well – everything.
Firstly, there is Mrs. Bobs and Willie:
“It was not his hand, more his wrist in any case. My lips only brushed the fine blond hairs and I remarked his furrowed knuckles, as if his fingers were frowning too. The hand was slender, very shapely and shadowy in the knuckles and below the nails, but I did not need his confession on Gisborne Road to feel pity for him. I had seen his pale blue eyes staring out his bedroom window. That was what I had in mind when I kissed his poor, sad hand.” (p.36)
A plot full of twists and disasters
By the end of the race, just about everything has gone wrong. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but not one of the people involved get out scot-free, not even the horrible dad.
Then, it seemed to me that Carey threw the plot out the door and went off on a tangent.
The last part of the novel is about Willie Bachhuber making a home for himself among some Aborigines. Throughout, there are hints here and there that all is not right with Willie’s almost comically Germanic heritage. He may be blond, but he doesn’t look quite White. Strange Aborigines pop out of the woodwork and act very familiarly towards him, making themselves at home in the car and tagging along on the race. They speak to him in puzzles that frighten and annoy him. What’s with Willie and these oddball “blackfellahs”? Read and find out for yourself.
Getting through Australia’s outback
Carey writes evocatively and imaginatively about the interior of Australia, the long roads, the dusty, forgotten towns, the very strange people. I suspect he writes about Australia like only he can, painting a picture of a nation that might still, in certain respects, be true today, in language that is typically post-WWII Australian:
“There was petrol in eighty miles, at Charters Towers. The town turned out to be as lost and broken as those abandoned cars. The main street was occupied by rusty old emporiums, piles of mullock overgrown with weeds and rubber vines, weary unpainted houses set on stilts. The petrol station was an old mill burned down in tragedy, with just a lonely petrol pump remaining.“ (p.156)
By the end of the race, the story of the Bobs family and Bachhuber is far from finished. Then Carey introduces other narrators and the story changes from an adventure to Australian racial politics and the definition of land and ownership. Bachhuber, at one point, has a sudden doubt that shakes his sanity:
“He was seated with his sheet wrapped around his shoulders, his thick fair hair standing as if electric-shocked. I thought, who cares what they think in Darwin? ‘I know who my father is, my mother, grandparents. I look like my father. I am his son, you see. Why is everybody trying to drive me mad?’ ‘Of course you’re not black. It doesn’t matter to me.’ ‘You think it doesn’t matter to me?’ Now I looked at him I saw the deep black worry showing on his forehead, the same corrugated frown I had observed amongst the drinkers at the beach,” (pp.182, 183)
A change in theme
Carey switches from a car race story, to Aborigine customs, looks, lifestyles and their obsession with land, freedom to roam, and maps without borders and fences.
He describes these things in a way that even I can appreciate – though the switch in setting, plot and narrators was unexpected. I was hoping, I suppose, for a different kind of conclusion.
I remember reading Bruce Chatwin’s skinny little literary or narrative non-fiction work, The Songlines (1987). Chatwin describes a trip to Australia which he took for the express purpose of researching Aboriginal song (songs and singing) and its connections to nomadic travel and the Aboriginal land rights movement. Chatwin asserts that language started as song, and in the Aboriginal “Dreamtime”, Aborigines sang the land into existence for conscious knowledge and memory.
Nowadays, many but not all anthropologists agree with “The Dreaming” theory, in which “The Dreaming” is used to represent Aboriginal concepts of “time out of time,” or “everywhen”, when the land was inhabited by ancestral figures, often of heroic proportions or with supernatural abilities. Some theories are that “The Dreaming”, and the “Songlines”, are simply ancient ways of recording history and mapping the world.
The novel is clear enough about what happens during these dreaming and singing sessions, and Carey does not shy away from describing the violent interactions between Aboriginal people and White settlers. He does not fall into the trap of patronizingly depicting “noble savages”, and does not use the characters of the Aborigines as “poverty porn”. It is what it is, and reading about them is not exactly enjoyable.
What is the message?
Ultimately, so what? At the end of the race, long before Bachhuber becomes an exile in the remote community of “Quamby Downs” and the Bobs’s return to their home in suburban “Bacchus Marsh”, Irene Bobs drives the last few kilometres:
“I lost all traction and was sideways to the double line, bouncing off a mountain drain. There was a drop of a thousand feet. I stalled. White mist. Then nothing visible but for four white rabbits which turned out to be the feet of a draught horse in the middle of the road. The mist opened to reveal, far far below us, a low wide building with Talbingo Hotel painted on its corrugated roof.” (p.260)
It is about what happens when you follow maps, and what happens when you make maps. Like the hotel roof emerging from the mist, everyone in the story eventually finds that the mist (whether rain or dust) lifts from their road and they can see exactly where they are, what they have become, what they need to do. Like that old saying, if you don’t know where you’re going, you will end up someplace else, where they end up is often not where they thought they’d be, even with their maps.
You’ll have to read it for yourself to find out where the maps lead to, but the last lines of the novel are a comment not only about the plot but about Australian life, culture and politics, in the 1950s and now:
“…our mother country is a foreign land whose language we have not yet earned the right to speak” (p.315) – bearing in mind what “language” here means – the songlines, the dreaming, the other interpretations of the map of Australia.
(One last comment: for a novel about maps, I would have appreciated a map of the race and its stops in the novel.)
About the names in the book
Many of the names of people and places in the book have to do with geographical features: “Bach” in Willie’s surname, means “creek” in German, and the other part sounds like “hübscher”, meaning “prettier” – so “the prettier creek”. The Bobs family lives in “Bacchus” Marsh, Bacchus being the Roman god of agriculture, wine and fertility. Bacchus Marsh is a real town in Victoria, Australia, formerly known for its production of fruit and veggies. As for “Quamby Downs”, Quamby is a real place, a tiny outback settlement in Northwest Queensland, Australia.
About Peter Carey
Peter Carey always manages to work controversial subjects into his novels. Read the review of Carey’s previous novel, Amnesia, here. Carey is a multiple nominee and winner of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction: Illywhacker, shortlisted in 1985; Oscar and Lucinda, 1988; True History of the Kelly Gang, 2001; Theft: A Love Story, longlisted in 2006; Parrot and Olivier in America, shortlisted in 2010. Peter Carey, J. M. Coetzee, and Hilary Mantel are the only authors to have won the Booker Prize twice.