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Book Review: Peter Carey explores the outback heart of darkness in ‘A Long Way From Home’

Like James Joyce and other literary exiles, Peter Carey left his homeland to live elsewhere and has never ceased writing about the place he departed. A permanent resident of New York for almost 30 years, Carey, in his 14th novel, offers a densely imagined recreation of the Australia of his youth. It is also one of the more pessimistic visions of the country offered so far in Carey’s fiction.

A Long Way From Home tells the tale of an outback road trip in the 1950s that takes on a kind of Heart of Darkness symbolic significance, albeit with the main characters travelling across the desert within the claustrophobic confines of a sedan rather than heading upstream on a boat into the jungle.

As Carey’s motorists venture into the interior of the continent, a vast, arid and barely inhabited landscape which even today most Australians never visit, three ordinary people find themselves confronting deeply troubling aspects of the colonial past involving the treatment of the Indigenous population by European settlers. The physical and psychic stresses of the ordeal force them to question their assumptions about personal identity and their relationships with each other.

As concerned as the novel is with questions of aboriginality, the prevailing mood is one of despair that non-Indigenous Australians will ever belong in the land of their birth.

The story begins simply enough. In the mid-1950s Irene Bobs agrees to go along when her car salesman husband Titch decides to compete in the Redex Round Australia Trial, taking with them as navigator their neighbour Willie Buchhuber, a former quiz show champion with a fondness for maps.

In real life, the Redex Trials were internationally famous endurance rallies that required competitors to drive for days on end over thousands of kilometres on unmade roads in cars never designed for outback conditions that were not permitted to be modified. A test of reliability rather than speed, the Redex Trials attracted many amateur entrants as well as professional racing drivers. Some of the more flamboyant competitors became celebrities – they were the reality TV stars of their day.

Carey’s three main characters live in Bacchus Marsh, the town in Victoria where the author grew up in the 1950s and where his father operated a car dealership. The novel is replete with references to local car culture and post-war rural life which a non-Australian reader of this book would require a lengthy glossary to have fully explained. In this regard, Joyce himself might have approved of Carey’s uncompromising provincialism.

In filmmaking terms, it is as though the action in A Long Way From Home has been captured through the lens of a tightly focussed GoPro action camera rather than the epic sweep of Super Panavision.

Carey in interviews has likened his approach to historical research to that of a magpie. Indeed, the pages are packed with eye-catching pieces of information that evidently have come from a wide range of sources, the accumulation of detail amounting to a kind of kaleidoscope in prose.

In common with other Carey novels, the fast-paced narrative alternates between two contrasting voices – in this case those of the practical Irene and the dreamer Willie. In keeping with the breathless aggregation of factual detail, Carey keeps things moving with short chapters describing brief incidents and fleeting impressions. As they speed across the desert, the characters are so absorbed in the drama of their inner lives that they barely have time to notice the landscape through which they move. The syncopated dual narrative is more attuned to the rhythms of the road than it is to the stillness and quiet of the Australian outback.

In filmmaking terms, it is as though the action in A Long Way From Home action has been captured through the lens of a tightly focussed GoPro camera rather than shot with the epic sweep of Super Panavision. A film adaptation of this outback novel would probably suit a director with the frenetic style of a George Miller rather than the more meditative approach of a David Lean or a Nicholas Roeg.

There is some relief from general busyness and intensity. One unforgettable scene involving a night-time Aboriginal fire ritual staged to revive a dead car battery with heat deserves to rank alongside similar displays of set piece virtuosity in Carey’s fiction such as the floating glass church in Oscar & Lucinda.

There is an underlying negativity in A Long Way From Home that is made explicit in the very last line of the book.

In a statement accompanying advance copies of the book, Carey acknowledges that his previous work has “avoided a direct confrontation with race, and the question of what it might mean to be a white Australian”. Among the three main characters, the most profound transformation experienced during the journey is that of Willie, who discovers that he is part Aboriginal. This contrivance allows Carey to approach Indigenous characters and themes from a certain respectful distance.

As concerned as the novel is with questions of aboriginality, the prevailing mood is one of despair that non-Indigenous Australians will ever belong in the land of their birth. The original sin that accompanied the foundation of Australia – the dispossession of the original inhabitants and the near erasure of their language and culture – by its very nature can never be extirpated.

Notwithstanding the energy and inventiveness that Carey brings to the storytelling, there is an underlying negativity in A Long Way From Home that is made explicit in the very last line of the book. To repeat it here in isolation from the preceding text would be to rob the words of their power.

The bleak message of the novel is signalled earlier on in the words spoken to Irene by a lugubrious Lutheran missionary who lives among the Aborigines in the desert:

‘“There is no right thing”, the old man said, “there are just many, many wrong things and sometimes we can do no better than pray to be forgiven”.’

A Long Way From Home is published by Penguin, $32.99

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2 responses to “Book Review: Peter Carey explores the outback heart of darkness in ‘A Long Way From Home’

  1. Carey wrote some of the most inventive and imaginative fiction in the history of this country. That was a while ago. His early short stories were scintillating and brilliant. Now I think he is suffering from what I call the curse of the contemporary. David Williamson owns that space and his later works are insufferable because of it. Flanagan’s worst book by a mile is the unknown terrorist. All because they are trying to write “issue” books. Gould’s Book of Fish is an incredible work of imaginative fiction. Drop the contemporary issues. Leave that to Williamson. Go back to the well of The Fat Man in History or Death of a River Guide. This is what we all want to read.

  2. I think Peter Carey should come home for a refresher. OK he was writing about the fifties. But things have changed for the better, though they are still not great and there is much more to be done. Indigenous men and women have been elected to federal and state parliaments, they include one of the country’s greatest orators, Noel Pearson, and many brilliant and soul stirring musicians and writers. They are widely recognised as the best custodians of the land through government Indigenous Ranger programs and, thanks to Paul Keating and his Native Title legislation, businesses run by traditional owners are succeeding where their opinions and management style are acknowledged as worthy of respect.

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