A Long Way from Home offers plenty of humor and real-life interpersonal sparring while touching on Australia’s often horrifying treatment of its first peoples.
Peter Carey’s A Long Way from Home makes use of the title both literally and figuratively, showing us a pair of narrators who have both been compromised by an unspoken system of inequality that runs throughout the narrative. Wrapped up within an endurance race around the perimeter of Australia is an examination of the country’s troubled history with regard to its native peoples. Throughout the book, they are simultaneously marginalized and memorialized, their lives more a historical curiosity than cautionary tale. As the Redex Trial progresses, its competitors find themselves venturing deeper and deeper into the unknown, coming up against all manner of outback obstacles, many of which are the result of the shameful treatment of the country’s aboriginal people. Coupled with this is the secondary nature of women from a societal standpoint; the events take place in the years following World War II and women adhere to a purely subservient or sexual role within the lives of their men.
Irene Bobs—one of the novel’s two alternating narrators—is anything but a traditional woman. Compared with her older sister, Beverly, whose sole purpose in life seems to be attracting the attention of the opposite sex, Irene is a far more modern, proto-feminist character. Together with her husband, Titch, the Bobs work to secure a Ford dealership, both scheming to achieve the seemingly impossible given their backwater locale. She quickly proves herself to be the brains and backbone of the team as Titch time and again falls victim to his overbearingly cruel father, Dan, who bears similar aims. This butting of heads shows Irene to be as single-minded as her father-in-law, albeit in a role subjugated by her gender. This becomes a literal and figurative battle of the sexes as Dan and Irene square off along the route of the Redex Trial.
Along for the ride is Willie Bachhuber, a 26-year-old quiz-show champion and former school teacher who lost his position following a rather unpleasant classroom incident that resulted in him holding a student out the window by their ankles. An unabashed bookworm and lover of maps, Bachhuber plays the intellectual role within the pyramid that includes Irene and Titch. His wealth of knowledge serves as the guide for both the characters and reader as they journey around Australia, taking note of the myriad atrocities committed in a manner similar to that of the numerous explorers who set out to conquer America. Despite the seemingly-Germanic origin of his surname, Willie’s origins remain shrouded in mystery; Carey frequently allows small clues to crop up either through the observations of others or Willie’s own inner monologue.
As the story is told from alternating viewpoints, we’re given something of a Rashomon-in-miniature, each character relating the series of events as perceived from their own viewpoint. When taken together, a fuller picture of what may have actually transpired becomes clearer. And given the nature of each character, a straightforward narrative is anything but guaranteed. Both are prone to seemingly unrelated tangents that often read like non sequiturs until they eventually circle back around to the action. It can be a frustrating narrative device in that it often makes it difficult to ascertain which character is speaking and what it is they are referring to. But a close read ties even the most random threads back into the overarching narrative, not so much as a mystery unraveling, but rather as details and facts being omitted here in favor of being revealed there.
In all, A Long Way from Home offers plenty of humor and real-life interpersonal sparring while touching on Australia’s often horrifying treatment of its first peoples. Given the post-war timeframe, there is a fair amount of xenophobia at play, but the racial divides go well beyond mere nationalist pride and point to something far more hateful. Like our own lives, the country’s history of atrocities remains ever-present but is glossed over, more often than not, in favor of what is happening now rather than what happened then. Peter Carey’s prose takes note of this, hiding the truth within the broader context of the overarching narrative while simultaneously focusing on the present. A Long Way from Home, despite a plot that appears straightforward, is anything but.