When Australian literary heavyweights collide there are bound to be comparisons made. Peter Carey’s new book, A Long Way from Home, is not the first fictionalised account of the Redex Trials, an around-Australia road race. That honour goes to Evan Green and his 1990 novel Dust and Glory. Nonetheless, where Green’s book was about a fictional third Redex Trial in 1956, Carey’s work concerns the actual first Trial in 1953. While Carey takes certain liberties with the race results (in a good cause) his work feels grittier and far more realistic then Green’s. Where Green gave us a massive portmanteau of a book in which he followed the fortunes of half a dozen competitors, Carey’s book is a much more personal affair, telling us about the trial from the point of view of Titch Bobs and his wife Irene.
Titch is a car salesman who, with the help of Irene, is trying to get a licence for a Ford dealership in Bacchus Marsh, Victoria (Carey’s birthplace). When their bid is derailed by Titch’s overbearing father, Irene turns to the newly established Holden company. Unfortunately she gets more than she bargained for when Holden also suggest that entering the new FJ Holden in the Redex would be just the kind of publicity a new dealer (and a new car company) need. In order to enter they enlist the services of their next door neighbour, Willie Bachhuber, a former schoolteacher and quiz show champion, to be their navigator.
This sets the scene for a book that explores not only the race and the pressures leading up to it, but also the social tensions of Australia in the early 1950s. Bachhuber is available because he is on extended leave after an incident of racial abuse at his school, which gives Carey the chance to explore race through Bachhuber’s background. Blonde and blue-eyed, Bachhuber is the son of an Adelaide Lutheran minister, and the brother of a prominent SA Nazi. But as the Trial cars wend their way further north, Bachhuber’s background begins to unravel.
It is here where Carey really lets it rip. The Trial around Australia becomes, rather, a Trial of Australia, where the naive Bobbses and Bachhuber are forced to confront an Australia they never knew existed, an ugly Australia where colonial tensions still abound. While the first half of the book was set in the dark suburbanity of Patrick White, the second, rural half owes much more to Xavier Herbert than Ion Idriess. In effect, once the Bobs Motors FJ leaves the tarmac and hits the bulldust, the book ceases to be about the Race, and becomes instead about race.
Carey chooses his subjects for maximum impact and A Long Way from Home is no exception. Anyone picking up this book expecting to be regaled with tales of Gelignite Jack Murray will instead find themselves drawn into a deep, dark tale of ambition, neglect and love unrequited. This is no bad thing.
Reviewed by D C White
Rating out of 10: 9
Rating Blurb: Drives forward and doesn’t stop
Distributed by: Penguin Australia
Release Date: November 2016
RRP: $32.99 trade paperback, $12.99 eBook