Review: Vivien Horler
A Long Way from Home, by Peter Carey (faber & faber)
In the 1950s Australia held a series of punishing motor rallies known as the Redex Reliability Trials which saw teams driving production cars around the continent on the roughest of outback roads.
In the 1955 event there was huge publicity as Australians followed the excitement of the more than 200 teams covering nearly 17 000 km in 18 days. More than half the field failed to finish.
Twice Man Booker Prize winner Peter Carey has used this rally as the framework for a marvellous novel of love and derring do, suffering and enlightenment set in a time when Australia was a far more homogenous society than it is today, in line with its White Australia policy.
At the centre of the novel is Titch Bobs, a mechanic who is desperate to open a Ford dealership in a small town not far from Melbourne. He has the fierce support of his wife Irene, who is most often to be seen in vest and overalls with a spanner in her hand. She loves Titch to distraction and tries to protect him from his abusive father.
And then there is their neighbour, fair-haired Willie Bachhuber, a schoolteacher and the son of a Lutheran missionary from Adelaide. Willie has been suspended from teaching after hanging a particularly obnoxious pupil out of a school window.
Titch is turned down by Ford and tells Irene he needs something to look forward to – he wants to enter the Redex Trial with Irene as co-driver. Irene thinks it’s a terrible idea, because it means spending nearly three weeks with a bunch of lunatic drivers, they’ll have to leave the children behind, and at the end of it all they will have to show is a wrecked car.
But if they win, wheedles Titch, they’ll be famous and could then secure the town’s Holden franchise.
Willie is a reader and a regular winner on a local radio quiz show. He knows everything, and in particular has a thing for maps. Irene’s driving is second to none, well, second possibly only to Titch’s, but she is no navigator. Will Willie join them? Willie will.
Also competing is Dangerous Dan, Titch’s father and Irene’s sworn enemy, who has a reputation for pranks involving gelignite. Dan blows up a telephone booth at the Sydney showgrounds where the rally starts.
“Redex starts with a bang”, the newspapers report.
While Willie might have plenty of book knowledge, he knows little of the real Australia. He has never even seen an Aborginal, and when he encounters them in the Northern Territory, he finds them strange, even frightening.
He, Titch and Irene are also surprised to discover that barmen in the Northern Territory will not sell him a beer. That’s because he doesn’t have a certificate. A policeman with attitudes typical of his times tells Willy: “It looks like you might have a personal interest in the dusky races, mate.” Noting that they come from down south, the cop continues: “It might not be obvious where you come from, mate. Up here we have what you might call an educated eye.”
Many adventures later, Willie finds himself trying to teach the geography of Australia to Aboriginal children on Quamby Downs, a vast cattle station. They do not get his maps at all, but it is a revelation both to Willie and his pupils when some of their fathers come into the classroom and start mapping the country in terms of song lines.
Some of the Aboriginals on the station come from that area, but most do not. Willie realises: “Their ancestors had been slaughtered, their country made unreachable. And of course I had finally seen that all Aboriginal culture was based on country, on journeys on tracks now cut up by fences.
“So then I understood that Quamby Downs was a sort of prison, where it was often impossible to honour the moral and religious obligations of singing country, and then the cause of the people’s awful lassitude was obvious. They were exiles, denied the meaning of their lives.”
A Long Way From Home is part gung-ho adventure, part travelogue, part thoughtful look at Australia’s past and its treatment of its indigenous people. It’s also often very funny. And the story has some surprising twists.
- This review also appeared in Weekend Argus on Sunday on July 8 2018