Review: Natalie Quinlivanon Peter Carey

Carey’s Race: A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey

In his author’s note for A Long Way From Home (2017), Peter Carey explains, ‘I have spent my life writing about my Australian inheritance, interrogating our colonial past, or possible futures’. Indeed, Carey’s fiction has always been concerned with iconic events and characters that have shaped Australia’s identity: Dickens’ representation of Australia in Great Expectations in Jack Maggs (1997), the Ern Malley affair in My Life as a Fake (2003), Ned Kelly in True History of the Kelly Gang (2000) and, most recently, the overthrow of the Whitlam government and the leaking of classified information by Julian Assange in Amnesia (2014). Yet Carey admits that despite his ambition to ‘acknowledge the peculiar circumstances of invasion, colonisation and immigration that have made us who we are’ he has always ‘avoided direct confrontation with race, and the question of what it might mean to be a white Australian’. A Long Way From Home changes this position. In 1985, Carey focused on Aboriginal dispossession and terra nullius in Illywhacker; he does this in A Long Way From Home too – but here he also confronts another type of dispossession, that of Aboriginal Australia’s cultural identity.

This latest novel wades into the history wars that have been raging since Paul Keating and John Howard’s divergence of opinion in the mid-nineties on what constitutes Australian history. A Long Way From Home does not whitewash Australia’s past with stories of white masculine heroes. It refuses to celebrate the physical feats of exploration without remembering the atrocities enacted against Aboriginal people both in the process of conquest and in the subsequent construction of the Australian nation.

The canonical representations of Australian identity that we revisit in A Long Way From Home seem, at first, unusual narrative subjects for Carey. The novel is mainly about, well, cars. Holden versus Ford to be precise and one of the first Redex round-Australia reliability trials in 1953 which passed through Brisbane, Rockhampton, Townsville, Darwin, Alice Springs, Adelaide and Melbourne before returning to Sydney. The novel is set in a time of automobiles and air travel – a time for modern exploration of Australia by modern men. This was when the infamous rivalry between Ford and Holden emerged, a rivalry that Carey uses as a metaphor for Australia’s uncertain desire to distinguish itself from foreign influence.

The possibility of success and infamy that hang in the air create an atmosphere in which mythologies based on masculine adventurism can flourish. Enter Irene and Titch Bobs, a young in-love couple, who move to Bacchus Marsh, a small town in Victoria, in order to escape the oppression of Titch’s ‘lurking’ daredevil of a father, Dangerous Dan Bobs. Irene detests her father in-law and fears the hold he has over her husband. Upon their first meeting, Irene tells us, Dan Bobs thought, ‘I was a beauty, a bobby dazzler until, in the hallway by the coat stand, he gave me cause to slap his face.’

Titch is not like his father. He is kind and humble and dearly loves his wife. His dream is to establish a Ford dealership and it is Irene’s intention that the move away from Dan will allow this to happen. Despite Irene’s efforts, the couple and their family are unable to escape the provocative and manipulative chest-beating of Dangerous Dan. He stifles their plans, causing Irene to surreptitiously push for Titch to switch to General Motors Holden (GMH). Surprisingly, Titch does more than warm to the idea and, with the encouragement of GMH representative Dunstan, decides that he and Irene should enter the Redex Reliability Trial as a shortcut to infamy and, consequently, commercial success. Irene thinks it is a bad idea. As she puts it, the Redex trial is nothing but ‘two hundred lunatics circumnavigating the continent of Australia, more than ten thousand miles over outback roads so rough they might crack your chassis clean in half’. Her protests unheard, the couple throw their money and relationship into the ring and most of the novel is taken up with their adventurous lunacy; an undertaking that comes to parallel the early settler exploration of Australia.

A Long Way from Home resonates with the facts of Carey’s own life —Carey’s parents owned a General Motors dealership called Carey Motors in Bacchus Marsh, which is where Carey was born. An expatriate living in New York, Carey’s fiction is preoccupied with his Australian home. His fictions can be read as Carey’s compulsion to return creatively to Australia. Carey has described himself to Nicholas Birns as a ‘full-time Australian writer, living in New York, thinking about Australia every day’. His thoughts, however, are not nostalgic but rather corrective. Carey’s fiction often tries to rewrite and reframe Australia. The success of such a pursuit depends on whether thinking about Australia, rather than living in the country, provides Carey with objective clarity or rhetorical detachment.

The novel is told from the perspective of two characters: Irene Bobs, whose personal ambition and determination emerge as she takes the challenge of the Redex almost squarely on her own shoulders; and Willie Bachhuber, Irene and Titch’s neighbour in Bacchus March. He is a young teacher with German heritage who is the reigning trivia champion on Deasy’s Radio Quiz Show. The novel’s two narrators stand in counterpoint to the dominant egoism of both Dan Bobs and, increasingly and unfortunately, Titch Bobs. In his choice of narrators, Carey makes a point that new voices and new narratives need to be heard. Men like Dan Bobs have had the spotlight for too long in this country.

Willie is handsome, reserved and naïve with a personality prone to bad relationships. Although well meaning, he is a pushover. Each week Willie publicly accepts a larger than life cheque for his quiz show win that, as it turns out, is merely a marketing ploy while the show waits for a lucrative sponsor. When the money finally does arrive, Willie is seduced by an opportunistic quiz show challenger who convinces him to take a dive. She assumes Willie’s mantle of reigning champion and promptly ends their relationship. Such is life for Willie, it seems. We discover that he fled his last relationship, abandoning his girlfriend and their child because his baby was black – the same colour as Willie’s best mate, the American, Madison Lee. Despite what Willie sees as a certain betrayal, he still pays child support. This seemingly small detail from Willie’s past hints at Carey’s ‘confrontation with race’, yet as the novel continues the misunderstandings surrounding Willie’s son generate life-altering consequences for both Willie and Irene.

Early on, Willie laments,

I spent my entire life in Australia with the conviction that it was a mistake, that my correct place was elsewhere, located on a map with German names. I had lived with the expectation that something spectacular would happen to me, or would arrive, deus ex machine, and I was, in this sense, like a man crouched on a lonely platform ready to spring aboard a speeding train.

When Irene and Titch Bobs railroad Willie into their Redex plans as a navigator, it seems as though Willie’s train has come – but it is not until the Redex trial reaches the remote parts of Australia that Willie’s true identity and destiny become apparent. He is far from home and, at the same time, right where he should be.

Home, for both Irene and Willie, becomes an altogether different place by the end of the novel. Their confusion over where they belong is an allegory for a broader crisis of national identity. The title of the novel draws into question whether basing Australian national identity on white settler experience makes for a true home for anyone – or takes us all a long way from belonging. For people like Titch and Dan Bobs, a white, masculine Australia provides a comfy dwelling with, to cite W.E.H Stanner, ‘carefully placed’ windows that obscure the views of a continuing Aboriginal presence and a multitude of atrocities committed against Aboriginal people. Irene and Willie’s stories create new windows through which to look at Australia’s past – and the view is confronting.

Even though the Redex race symbolises Australia’s desire to leave its provincial origins and conquer the Australian landscape, the great estrangement at the heart of A Long Way From Home is the distance that settler Australia has accumulated from its Aboriginal origins and culture. As Carey has put it, ‘our mother country is a foreign land whose language we have not yet earned the right to speak’. The Redex trial becomes a fool’s errand, representative of white Australia’s attempts to conquer the ‘wilderness’, a 1950s version of white exploration over an already known landscape. Those nineteenth-century explorers often had Aboriginal guides – and so too, it turns out, do Irene and Titch.

During the race, Irene answers the call of nature six hours out of Townsville and discovers a human jawbone just off the track. She realises this bone is part of a larger group of remains. She picks up a small skull with a bullet hole in its side, identifying it as a small child’s. It is lying in a mass grave that could only belong to an Aboriginal family murdered by Europeans. The discovery irreversibly changes Irene, who, because she ‘was a mother’, becomes immediately attached to the remains of the young boy and is racked with grief: ‘God knows why I cried about something so long ago. My husband did his best to understand but this was not our fault. We never knew this picaninny.’ Titch would rather ignore the site. Irene and Titch’s divergent responses to racist brutality mark their drift from each other. It becomes clear that they experience the world in very different ways. Indeed, the couple come to represent competing contemporary views on how Australia should remember its past and construct its national narratives. They are the opposing sides of the history wars that would emerge forty or so years after the novel is set. Irene needs to remember in order to move forward. Titch sees no need to look back.

Irene ‘nurses’ the skull all the way to Townsville where she takes it to the local police station with Willie in tow hoping to seek justice for the atrocity. Justice does not prevail. This action marks the turning point of the novel, when both characters’ lives begin to unravel. The hints that Willie might not be of German descent turn into accusations at the police station when the officer asks Willie about his ‘interest in the dusky races’. As the race continues, it becomes clear that what was apparent to the officer in Townsville is true. The quick succession of events at this point in the narrative—Irene discovering a massacre site and Willie discovering he has an Aboriginal heritage—mark a critical shift in the novel’s focus. The rollicking Redex adventure across Australia, hitherto absent of any Aboriginal presence, is only a partial narrative; dangerously incomplete. If Carey’s novel is to be read as an allegory of Australian identity, following Irene, Titch and Willie down dirt roadways would mean blindly following the glory of white Australia without stopping to consider the injustices that were committed, nor the songlines that were either stopped or corrupted to make way for these new tracks across country. Carey decides that the Redex should take a detour. The change of direction, however, is ethically dubious.

Willie ends up at Quamby Downs, a cattle station with an Aboriginal community that is revealed to be his true family. Irene attempts to come to terms with the death of the young Aboriginal boy yet her efforts become confused as she also tries to reunite with Willie. Irene’s relationship with the skull is not necessarily based on guilt, yet she does feel an obligation to do the right thing. As to what the right thing is, Irene has very little idea. Despite her progressive and sympathetic response to the plight of Aboriginal people in Australia, Irene’s mission to lay the skull to rest lacks any reasoned direction or understanding. Irene instinctually takes the skull in its cardboard box to Willie’s adoptive father Mr Bachhuber, a German pastor whom she had never met but ‘trusted … completely’. Irene asks Mr Bacchuber to give the skull ‘a proper burial’ as the dead child’s people ‘will not touch him’. Carey’s insistence that she cares about the remains because she is a mother somewhat undermines her motives. Why, it must be asked, isn’t the need for justice and the truth enough?

In 1975, Carey wrote the short science fiction story, ‘Do You Love Me’, about a world controlled by the Cartographers. Maps and mapmakers are also powerful in A Long Way From Home.  From the early maps that created Terra Australis Incognita to Flinders’ 1814/1822 map, General Chart of Terra Australis or Australia, also known as the ‘birth certificate of a nation’— maps have been defining Australian territory and identity in a way that obscures a much longer history of Indigenous mapping already in existence across the Australian continent. The act of cartography assumes the role of discovery and possession by outlining and naming the land. The process denies Aboriginal stories and identity while also dispossessing Aboriginal people of their land. A Long Way From Home is an exercise in setting the record straight. This is primarily achieved through the character of Willie, who, as trivia expert, teacher and navigator, is the vessel of Western knowledge, a man who regurgitates ‘facts’ about his country and reads the landscape for the Bobs Redex team.

When Willie ends up teaching a community of Aboriginal men, women and children at Quamby Downs, he is reacquainted with Doctor Battery, a lively Aboriginal man with a deft hand at mechanics. Dr Battery had set Irene and Willie literally and figuratively back on track during the Redex trial. Battery, who at first seems like a comical peripheral character, becomes pivotal to the realisation of Willie’s true identity.

At Quamby Downs, Willie comes to understand that his destiny will not be found studying a map of Germany but another map entirely. On learning that his students cannot draw an outline of Australia, Willie decides that he will ‘teach them something useful’ and sets about drawing a map of Australia as a ‘gift’ to his class. Carey none too subtly criticises the ignorance and arrogance of Willie’s worldview as he whitewashes a cave wall before painting the map of Australia on its surface, complete with the inscription, ‘Captain Cook 1770’ in its bottom corner. Willie gradually becomes immersed in the Aboriginal community’s stories and realises that they are his teachers, that their stories are the maps that he needs to learn to navigate his homeland. The map painted on the cave wall is painted over once more, to be filled with stories of ancestral beings and the inscription of CAPTAIN COOK ‘lay hidden, like a landmine, beneath the kalsomine’. Here Carey implies that a true map of this country must not only include, but be based on, our Aboriginal heritage. And it is this journey, from an illusory sense of home and self to a place of conflicting histories and identities, that most interests Carey in A Long Way From Home.

The novel ultimately not only acknowledges the brutality of Australia’s government-endorsed violence against Aboriginal people, but also chooses to champion that narrative over the classic yarn about cars. At the conclusion of A Long Way From Home, the Redex trial recedes into the background of Willie’s narrative of reconnection with his Aboriginal heritage. Irene’s narrative fades into the background, too. Irene is left to overcome the hardships of the Redex race and Titch’s increasingly dismissive treatment of her. Irene’s deep sadness and grief is not only for the loss of her happy life but the realisation that a large part of that happiness was based on an illusion. It is disappointing that her character is overshadowed by Willie’s journey because Irene is such a strong force in the novel. Often it is her determination alone that propels the story forward. Only when reading the novel through an ideological and political lens does Carey’s shift in focus make sense. Carey’s gradual prioritising of Willie’s reconnection with his Aboriginal heritage sets up his vision for an inclusive and honest national identity that can confront its brutal colonial and assimilationist past.

A Long Way From Home is a novel that seeks to start a conversation about what Australia stands for—who we are as a nation and what stories we want to retell and remember. It is Carey’s attention to the construction of Australian identity that is both the strength and weakness of this novel. For all its clever metaphors and allegorical flourishes, A Long Way From Home sits somewhere between a meaningful novel about Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal identity in Australia and a novel of well-meaning gestures. In writing about the silenced Aboriginal history of this country and appropriating Aboriginal voices and trauma to do so, Carey is wading into an ethically and politically fraught arena. The question of who has the right to tell our nation’s stories has always been the topic of controversy. It is one thing to remythologise Ned Kelly, quite another to take on the voice of someone from the Stolen Generation. In view of this, Carey’s last minute detour away from Irene’s narrative is both perplexing and problematic. Irene’s story deals with white Australia’s anxieties about belonging and difficulty in confronting the brutal history of Aboriginal dispossession and is, as such, much closer than Willie’s journey to Carey’s own relationship with Australia. It begs consideration over what the ethical line is for authors who appropriate the voices of marginalised people in their fictions when they themselves are not marginalised.

Kate Grenville’s The Secret River was famously criticised by Inga Clendinnen for its fictionalisation of history and for its silencing of the Dharug voices in its narrative. Clendinnen argued that Grenville’s difficulty in entering the mind of her Aboriginal characters was absurd given that Grenville ‘had no such difficulty empathising with assorted Britishers from 200 years ago’. Clendinnen’s attack on the logic of Grenville’s approach did not acknowledge the possibility of an ethical approach in Grenville’s work that, flawed or not, recognises the importance of Aboriginal stories in Australia being told by the ‘right’ people. Grenville was sympathetic to the Dharug plight as she described the violent dispossession enacted on Aboriginal communities by ‘settlers’ like William Thornhill and other men along the Hawkesbury, yet she deliberately chose not to present these events from the perspective of those local communities. Grenville characterised her refusal to appropriate the Dharug responses, thoughts, and feelings as an ethical decision, based on her belief that ‘all that was for someone else to tell, someone who had the right to enter that world and the knowledge to do it properly’. In the stage adaptation of The Secret River, Andrew Bovell chose to correct the novel’s skewed perspective creating a play that presented the Dharug perspective and gave them a voice in their own. However, Bovell’s efforts drew criticism from Indigenous actor and director, Rachael Maza for the perceived depiction of Aboriginal people as a dying race relegated to the past. These are typical dilemmas for any non-Aboriginal Australian writer writing about Australia: is it better for a non-Aboriginal writer to assume an Aboriginal perspective in their writing even though they risk perpetuating the tradition of non-Aboriginal representation of Aboriginal people in fiction; or is it better to exclude an Aboriginal perspective altogether resulting, once again, in the continued denial of Aboriginal agency in our national texts?

Carey uses the character of Willie Bachhuber as a way to sidestep this impasse. Willie’s story initially encapsulates the European Australian perspective yet, through a plot twist of mistaken identity that reveals Willie’s true heritage as Aboriginal Australian, his story exposes the erroneous nature of his Eurocentric perspective and the importance of establishing Aboriginal connections to people and place. The confusion that Willie experiences in discovering his identity represents a confused Australian and, it so turns out, Aboriginal identity, one that has been taught to look to Europe as home and is slowly realising that home is here, linked to Aboriginal land and stories.

The final chapter of A Long Way From Home belongs to Willie’s son Neil who, at the age of eighteen, finally meets his father. He describes his father as a man ‘torn apart by two opposing desires, one to record and one to keep a secret’, a predicament, Carey notes, that is known to anyone familiar with ‘alchemical literature’. Willie limits his official anthropological publications to reporting ‘the secret cults of opposition to white colonisation’. In these final pages, Willie is cast as the conflicted writer, a move that once again points to the ethical dilemmas of authorship. Is Carey reflecting on his own ethical dilemma in choosing to write or not to write about race in his own work? Is Carey alluding to the problematic nature of appropriating an Aboriginal voice in literature? If so, the suggested similarity between his role as an Australian author and that of an Aboriginal man seeking to reconcile his two heritages after discovering his denied Aboriginal heritage exposes Carey to accusations of cultural insensitivity; at the very least it places A Long Way From Home in controversial territory. A Long Way From Home begins to feel like Carey’s template for how Australia should engage with its past and look to its future. But is this enough? The novel makes a clear statement about which stories are deemed important in Australia’s national discourse – but it also rhetorically appropriates massacre and the Stolen Generation to make a political point.

The complexity of Aboriginal identity in Australia is something that Aboriginal writers also struggle to articulate. Consider the work of Kim Scott whose collected works of fiction constantly tap into the author’s own ambivalence towards his Scottish and Noongar heritage. In Kayang and Me, a memoir written with elder Kayang Hazel Brown, Scott discusses the difficulty in taking up the ‘political imperative’ to choose to identify as Noongar rather than wadjela in a ‘divided society’. He states that living among both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities he and his family must navigate ‘a social schism, a historical, racial fault line’. By contrast the rhetorical neatness of Carey’s story seems superficial.

This year, Scott’s fourth novel, Taboo (2017), was released. Its plot also revolves around the revisiting of a massacre site. Based on Scott’s own experience of returning to the site of the Cocanarup massacre with his Noongar elders, the novel speaks to the ongoing consequences of the injustices enacted on Aboriginal people in Australia’s past, the pain of remembering and the struggle to forgive. Scott’s story is about the possibility of healing, a deeply felt novel that, arguably, can only be written from an Aboriginal perspective. There is nothing symbolic about the massacre in Taboo. It is worth also considering that Kim Scott has argued for an ‘ethics of listening’ in our approach to Australia’s Aboriginal stories and culture. It is time, he argues, for Aboriginal storytellers to share their heritage, to give their versions of a shared history in their own way.

Where does this leave a storyteller like Peter Carey? A Long Way from Home is a clever, often hilarious, heartfelt and ultimately sobering story that seeks to unsettle traditional notions of Australian identity. Carey has adopted two marginalised voices in a bid to correct their subsumption by a national discourse that traditionally venerates white masculinity; and in doing so he has created two memorable, if not lovable, characters in Willie and Irene. He is right to assert that these voices need to be heard in order to retell Australia’s history and shape its future. In reconstructing the race politics on which this nation is founded, Carey has created an important novel and a compelling read. The question that remains unanswered, however, is: is this his story to tell?

Works Cited

Nick Birns, ‘The Power to Create for Oneself’: An Interview with Peter Carey’,
Writing on the Edge, 6.1 (Fall 1994).
Peter Carey, A Long Way From Home (Hamish Hamilton, 2017).
Peter Carey, True History of the Kelly Gang (UPQ 2000).
Inga Clendinnen, ‘The History Question: Who Owns the Past?’, Quarterly Essay 23 (2006)
Kate Grenville, Searching for the Secret River, (Text Publishing Company, 2006)
Kate Grenville, The Secret River, (Text Publishing Company, 2005)
Kim Scott and Hazel Brown, Kayang and Me, (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2005)
Kim Scott, Taboo (Picador, 2017).
Kim Scott, ‘Visiting Indigenous Writers’ Program – Kim Scott: Taboo book launch’ (August 2017)
William Edward Hanley Stanner, ‘The Boyer Lectures 1968—After the Dreaming’ (Australian Broadcasting Commission 1969)
Monica Tan, ‘Indigenous director Rachael Maza on The Secret River: ‘That’s not the story I want to be telling my kids’’, The Conversation (March 2016)