Peter Carey’s new novel is a pretty remarkable beast. It starts out appearing to be one sort of thing, then turns into another, then into still another. In that, it represents the Australia that is its ultimate subject – an Australia of violent transformations and concealed histories.
It’s an Australia with which his work has engaged on and off, sometimes obliquely, through his career. The landscape has been a presence ever since Illywhacker (1985). The Man Booker-winning True History of the Kelly Gang (2000) ventriloquised his native land’s most famous bandit. His last novel, Amnesia (2014), offered a riddlingly metafictional retelling of the Seventies coup against Gough Whitlam. Here, in his 14th novel, he roams more widely across Australia’s territory and more deeply into its past than ever before – and reaps rich rewards from doing so.
To start with, A Long Way From Home presents itself as a droll domestic comedy about a small-town car salesman, “Titch” Bobs, as seen through the eyes of his doting wife, Irene. Titch is a dapper little man, who first encountered his future bride when he turned up at her parents’ house as her mother’s driving instructor (his car salesman father, the boorish and vainglorious “Dangerous Dan” Bobs, had thrown in some driving lessons, to be administered by his 5’3” son, as part of the bargain on a new Ford). The mother perished before she even got the chance to turn the key in the car’s ignition, but Irene, forthright and practical Irene, ended up proposing marriage to Titch.
At the outset, then, Irene is living in the unremarkable Melbourne suburb of Bacchus Springs in the Fifties, with two young children and a husband she adores. He’s a meek and proper little fellow, but with hidden depths – a tiger in bed, she hints, and unexpectedly at home navigating the rough pubs in which he does his deals. The only fly in the ointment is her awful father-in-law, who is “always lurking” and to whom Titch is frustratingly indulgent. Titch wants to start his own Ford dealership, and hopes to use some of his wife’s inheritance to do so. Dan patronises and seeks to thwart him.
Enter a new neighbour, Willie Bachhuber, who shares the narration of the novel with Irene. Willie is a curious figure – open-hearted and friendly, but nursing a number of secrets. He’s about to get fired from his job as a schoolteacher after (in a seemingly uncharacteristic fit of rage) dangling a bad-mannered pupil out of the window. He is the undisputed champion of a (wholly rigged) radio quiz show. And he’s in flight from all manner of creditors – including, as we discover, those concerned with the non-payment of child support.
Willie is a blond man who feels solitary and out of place, estranged from his family yet romantically attached to his German ancestry – or what he thinks is his German ancestry (of which much more later). Bookish, fascinated by maps and archaeology, anxious, “a mess of carnal yearning and remorse”, Willie makes sheep’s eyes at petite, peppy Mrs Bobs – and the possibility opens that here will be the story of an illicit romance. Which it nearly is… until it takes another of its abrupt left turns.
In order to raise money and publicity for the putative dealership, Titch and Irene put in to compete in the Redex Round-Australia Reliability Trial – which sends production cars the length of that vast country on unforgiving roads – and Titch recruits Willie as the couple’s navigator.
Soon our small-town comedy has given way to a road-novel – an outback Wacky Races complete with upended cars and waist-deep bulldust, gelignite pranks and the discovery of a paysage moralisé in the Australian bush. Here are bars that won’t serve “blackfellahs”; the skull of an Aboriginal infant discovered buried in the roadside mud; and a virtuosic but unshowy reduplication of motifs to do with failed and thwarted versions of parenthood, and misunderstandings of the past.
As they make their way along the road, they run into a recurring figure, a mysterious and taciturn Aboriginal man they know only as “Doctor Battery” after he helps them to revive a flat battery on their car. First a roadside helper, then an unexpected hitchhiker, then more…
Willie’s preoccupation with archaeology and maps (including the strip-maps with which he guides the car through its perilous course) first provides a window into the hidden history of the country; and then gives way to something that suggests a wholly different way of mapping the country. It is not only Western cartographers who have mapped Australia in pen and ink. The Aboriginal songlines offer an older and different way, as Willie comes to realise, of understanding geography:
“Blackfellahs got no fence. No fence, no bloody map neither.” How that last bit stung. To hear my map attacked by friends. “Whitefellah have fence and map,” said Doctor Battery.
“Whitefellah cut up my country,” he said, counting with his long fingers. “Surveyor map. Whitefellah peipa. Western Australia. South Australia. Kartiya lock the gate. Blackfellah stay out.”
Australia’s original sin – its colonial racism, its “Stolen Generation” of mixed race children removed from their Aboriginal parents – comes pushing up through the dust.
This is a very plotty, and very enjoyably plotty, book; and though the plot isn’t the point of it, I’m hesitant to dole out much in the way of spoilers. But let it be said that bit by bit, by and by (as Doctor Battery would put it), A Long Way From Home turns into a novel of startling scope and real moral and emotional depth. Its turn into Aboriginal history and mythology is respectful and just the right side of piety; othering just the right side of orientalism.
And any hint of solemnity or piety is dispelled by the sprightliness and vitality of Carey’s writing, sentence by sentence. He’s apt and exact and unexpected. Here’s Willie sharing a car with Irene for the first time: “Mrs Bobs piloted with her nose just above the wheel, checking her mirrors, left, right, centre. I was reminded of a sparrow eating.” Not just the sparrow metaphor (eating!) but the punctuation (“mirrors, left, right, centre”), the choice of the term “piloting”, the comic precision of the nose above the wheel.
Or here’s a cattle station in the rainy season: “A billabong appeared from nowhere, right by the camp. It brought the trombone cries of frogs, splashing, laughter. […] The landscape out my bedroom window was a necklace of islands in swirling cack-coloured water.”
Or here’s Mrs Bobs on the road: “The smell of a rally car, the stink, the whiff, the woo, you will never find the recipe for this pong in the Women’s Weekly but ingredients include petrol, rubber, pollen, dust, orange peel, wrecked banana, armpit, socks, man’s body. I drove into the night on the ratshit regulator. My headlights waxed and waned depending on the engine revs...”
The strange, tender, always somehow comical tone of the novel carries it through its unexpected switchbacks as surely as does Mrs Bobs’s battered Redex car. Nobody ends up quite where they expected to, and nothing that the reader is cued to expect quite takes place as convention would have it. Yet at the same time it builds to a whole internal system of echoes and rhymes that seem to make perfect sense even as they startle the reader with their apparent randomness.
It’s as if the shape of the book has been determined by a dream logic semi-invisible to the conventions of the western novel: which is, again, entirely in keeping with its project. One character is described, late on, as being “torn apart by two conflicting desires, one to record and the other to keep secret”, and those desires come out, as the closing words of the book have it, in “an encryption whose function is to insist that our mother country is a foreign land whose language we have not yet earned the right to speak”.
It’s a wild, strange, magical ride of a book, in other words: learned and frivolous and as serious as history. And its title rings truer and truer. Here is a novel well and truly gone walkabout.
A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey
360pp, Faber, £17.99, ebook £12.98. Call 0844 871 1514 to order a copy from the Telegraph for £15.99