A Long Way from Home review –
Peter Carey’s best novel in decades;
The acclaimed writer’s 14th novel is a nuanced story of racial identity set in postwar Australia
Alex Preston, The Observer(London) January 15, 2018
Writers are by nature chameleons, with each new character a new disguise to take on, a fresh skin to inhabit. It shouldn’t surprise, then, that racial passing has such a rich literary history. Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, Passing, is a near-forgotten classic, telling of two mixed-race women, Clare and Irene, who identify as white and black respectively. More recently, we’ve had Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, in which the African American Coleman Silk attempts to pass for a Jewish academic. Then there’s Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill, whose concluding revelation about one of the characters’ racial identities does what all good end-of-book twists ought to, shedding new light on the entire novel.
A Long Way from Home, Peter Carey’s 14th novel, uses the story of a light-skinned Indigenous Australian who has been brought up white to address the country’s brutal history of racism. It seems strange at first that Carey – surely Australia’s greatest living novelist, even if he hasn’t dwelled there for decades – has taken so long to get around to the subject. In a recent interview in the Australian, he said that he’d always felt that it was not the place of a white writer to tell this tale. Then something changed: “You can’t be a white Australian writer and spend your whole life ignoring the greatest, most important aspect of our history, and that is that we – I – have been the beneficiaries of a genocide.”
Related: Peter Carey: ‘You wake up in the morning and you are the beneficiary of a genocide’
The novel is told in alternating first-person voices. Initially, we meet the petite Irene Bobs, a spunkily irrepressible young woman married to the equally diminutive Titch. Titch is genial, slightly useless and lives in fear of his domineering father, Dan. Titch dreams of running the local Ford dealership; after (yet another) stab in the back from his father, he has to make do with being the Bacchus Marsh representative of General Motors Holden. Irene loves her husband, loathes her father-in-law and longs for success on a grander stage.
The second voice is that of the nervy and lankily romantic Willie Bachhuber, the fair-haired son of a Protestant preacher. Fleeing a seemingly faithless wife, Bachhuber turns up in Bacchus Marsh with a library of books and plasters his walls with maps of his beloved Germany. He becomes a regular and successful quiz show guest on a local radio station and a teacher at the town’s school (until a run-in with a belligerent student gets him fired). Bachhuber and Irene strike up a friendship over the garden fence, attracting the attention of the small-town gossips, particularly given Bachhuber’s name and teutonophilia – the book is set immediately after the second world war, and most Bachhubers, as Irene notes, would have changed their name to Hubert.
Alongside the racial passing storyline (the tangled identities are unravelled late enough on that any further information would spoil an intricately engineered plot), there’s another engine to the narrative – Irene and Titch’s attempts to win the Redex Trial, a round-Australia motorsport rally. It allows Carey to paint for his readers a vivid portrait of the country as the intrepid “Bobses,” with Bachhuber roped in as navigator, battle their way through terrain as inhospitable as its taciturn inhabitants.
It is interesting that Carey’s publishers promote this novel as his “late style masterpiece”; what kept striking me, at least at first, was how similar it was in style and substance to his earlier work. The conceit of the Redex Trial imbues the novel with the same sense of rollicking picaresque that we got in Oscar and Lucinda. There’s the same deeply felt engagement with the Australian landscape that we found in True History of the Kelly Gang : here be willy-willies and billabongs. The interweaving dual perspectives are a well-established Carey trope. The earlier scenes in Bacchus Marsh are painted with the same nostalgic glow as Illywhacker – Carey grew up in Bacchus Marsh and his parents ran a Holden dealership there.
However, it is the character of Willie Bachhuber who brings something new to this novel. He’s a man who seems almost preternaturally sensitive to the horrors of this “murderous continent”. I couldn’t help thinking that Carey must have been reading WG Sebald : Bachhuber has the same ability to see historical violence written into the landscape. The second half of the novel goes by in a flash, with Irene and Bachhuber separated, their fates spiralling towards very different ends.
It is striking that, Nella Larsen aside, the principal narratives of racial passing have been written by white authors. By following in this tradition, Carey has found a way to delve deeply into a topic that was previously morally unavailable, so that what starts out feeling like a typical, jauntily whimsical Peter-Carey-by-numbers soon becomes something more complex and powerful. At the end of the novel, Bachhuber’s son recognises that his father’s life had been spent wrestling with the problem of the ethical representation of a terrible historical wrong: how to “record the truth and keep the secret”. Carey himself has achieved exactly this, in his best novel in years, maybe decades.