Australia’s colonial history haunts Peter Carey’s new novel A Long Way from Home

“I’m an Australian writer and I haven’t written about this? Well, that just seems pathetic to me.”

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Willie Bachhuber, 26 years old, a disgraced teacher – “a chalk-and-talker”, he says – is a man out of place. Of German ancestry, raised in a pastor’s family, he grows up in Australia “with the conviction that it was a mistake”, that he belongs elsewhere, in the romantic European landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich, not the territories in the southern hemisphere described by one European geographer as simply “harsh or useless”. At the beginning of Peter Carey’s new novel he is a man waiting for salvation, looking to his dreams for portents.

Perhaps salvation can be found in signing on as navigator with Irene and “Titch” Bobs, his neighbours in genteel Bacchus Marsh, would-be car dealers who are taking on the Redex Round Australia Trial. It’s 1954, and this automotive endurance test – a real race, held until the late 1990s – sends its drivers, who stay at the wheel day and night, around nearly 10,000 miles of the Australian landscape.

The narrative voice shifts between Willie’s search for self and Irene’s parallel quest to combine her intellect and desire for adventure with life as a wife and mother; never mind her conflicted relationship with her father-in-law, Dan Bobs, a roguish cove not above putting the moves on his son’s wife. He had the first pilot’s licence in Australia, or so it’s claimed, and now has a sign over his gate reading “THE OLDEST AIRMAN IN THE WORLD”. All three, Willie, Irene and Dan – less so Irene’s husband, Titch – are the kind of outsiders who have populated Carey’s novels since his first, Bliss, in 1981: characters in search of revelation and transformation.

If Irene Bobs never matches up to Oscar and Lucinda’s vibrant Lucinda Leplastrier, that’s because this intriguing novel really belongs to Willie. It’s as if Carey would like to weight the two voices equally but the strength of Willie’s story pulls the balance down in his favour, and it’s in the book’s final third that a good read becomes a compelling one. It would be a shame to spoil the story but this novel marks Carey’s recognition of his native land’s colonial past. As he said recently in an interview, “It’s no good not engaging with something that you’ve been intrinsically involved in. You wake up in the morning and you are the beneficiary of a genocide. I’m an Australian writer and I haven’t written about this? Well, that just seems pathetic to me.” It’s a striking statement from one of the country’s most lauded novelists.

Old Pathé newsreels paint the Redex rally as adventure, but by the end of A Long Way From Home it comes to seem like a brutal claiming, a 20th-century reprisal of the notion of terra nullius, the idea that the continent belonged to no one, that its indigenous inhabitants – numbering perhaps a quarter of a million when Europeans first arrived in Australia – were not people at all.

The end of the novel brings the beginning into focus, casting new light on the images, like the “huge fat snake” in Willie’s dream, which Carey laces throughout his text. When Irene steps out into the wilderness to answer “a call of nature”, she heads into “a nest of broken sticks and leaves of timber”. She pees – “just a whisper” – but then discovers that she has been squatting over a pile of bones; animal bones, she thinks them to be at first. But then she sees “a tiny thing, fragile and powdery as an emu egg”. A skull like that which might belong to her own child, only this one is marked by a bullet hole. When she shows it to a policeman he describes it bluntly on a form: “Abo infant skull found near Funnel Creek/Finch Hatton.” Irene “did not question how he knew the child had been Aboriginal or how he guessed the placenames and I had no choice but to accept the piece of paper together with the skull”.

This death-haunted history, always known yet unacknowledged, is the burden of the book. Its opening pages creak somewhat under the weight of what is to come, but when the final pages of the tale flower it has been worth the wait. Some might ask what right Carey has to tell some of the stories he does, despite the acknowledgments that pay tribute to the depth of his research. Yet surely fiction’s role is to provide both writer and reader with the kind of empathy only accessible via an imagination as generous and serious as that of a writer such as Peter Carey. 

A Long Way From Home
Peter Carey
Faber & Faber, 357pp, £17.99

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer. A former literary editor of the Times, she has twice judged the Man Booker Prize. Her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters”, the novel Seizure and, most recently, Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge

This article appears in the 26 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How women took power