A Long Way From Home is by celebrated Australian author Peter Carey.
Why I read this book I don’t know, since I just can’t seem to find a way to love Peter Carey’s style. I couldn’t finish Oscar and Lucinda, finished but didn’t love The Chemistry of Tears, and this time around, wasn’t crazy about A Long Way From Home. It must be me. The man has won the Booker Prize twice.
The story begins with Irene Bobs and her husband Titch, a car salesman, moving to Bacchus Marsh, a country town in western Victoria during the 1950’s to escape Titch’s bullying, show-off father. Irene and Titch befriend their next door neighbour, Willie Bachhuber. Willie is on suspension from teaching school after dangling a student out of a two-story window by his feet. Willie is also the reigning champion on a rigged radio quiz-show.
Bacchus Marsh was a very English country town after World War Two where, with his German heritage, Willie is an outcast who suffers casual racial abuse. He abandoned his wife in Melbourne after she had a black baby, believing she had had an affair with an American family friend. Willie was attracted to Irene, but by the time the Redex Trial started was having an affair with her sister, who by then was living with her children in a caravan in the backyard of Irene and Titch’s house.
Together, Irene, Titch and Willie set off around Australia in a brand-new Holden on the Round Australia Redex Reliability Trial, competing against Titch’s father, whose ego has continually got in the way of his good sense. Irene and Titch left their children behind to be looked after by Irene’s sister, driving while Titch navigated. Irene and Titch’s aim is to win the Trial for the publicity for when they open their much-dreamed of car dealership on their return to Bacchus Marsh.
By the time the Redex Trial got to outback Australia the Bobs’ team was in the lead, but when Titch’s father unexpectedly died during the Trial their future was jeopardised as they had sunk all of their savings into the event. Irene made arrangements to have the body shipped back to Melbourne then abandoned a grief-stricken Titch to continue racing with Willie.
In the outback, tall, blonde Willie became more and more confused as he was repeatedly refused entry into pubs by owners asking to see the papers allowing him to move between districts, while the Aboriginals he met along the way seemingly recognised him as one of their own. At that time, ‘half-caste’ Aboriginal people were allowed to move around provided they had a Certificate of Exemption, while ‘full-blooded’ Aboriginal people were restricted to certain areas.
The story was told alternately by Irene, Titch and Willie.
I loved reading about the Redex Trial and the setting of the country town in western Victoria felt true. The cultural references made me smile, particularly the Holden vs Ford thing, which is as Australian as football, meat pies, kangaroos and Holden cars…*
I liked how the story changed from being one of white Australia in the 1950’s to becoming a history of Australia from an Aboriginal perspective. My problem with Peter Carey’s writing is the lack of connection I feel with his characters. Irene didn’t feel true to me and neither did Titch or Willie. I’m disappointed to feel this way, because otherwise A Long Way From Home is a good story and well told.
*Hands up if you remember that advertising jingle?