Peter Carey is an oddity. Some of his books, such as Illywhacker, Oscar And Lucinda and True History Of The Kelly Gang are genuinely remarkable. Some, such as the silly and sour Theft: A Love Story or the leaden-footed His Illegal Self or the just plain boring Parrot And Olivier In America, are less than what he is capable of writing.
A word often used when reviewing him is “Dickensian”. It makes me wonder which Dickens the reviewer means, because there is a vast distance between The Pickwick Papers and Great Expectations. On the basis of this new novel, it is very much early Dickens. It is picaresque, sentimental and grotesque. When it does try to deal with, what we must hold in air-quotes, “issues”, it hectors as much as it lectures. There is a lot to be enjoyed in the novel, and as much to be frustrated and bemused by.
The plot involves a woman in Bacchus Marsh, just outside Melbourne, in the 1950s. Irene is married to “Titch” Bobs, one of the best car salesmen in the area. He is a dapper little fellow and she is a devoted wife, even though Titch’s father is a patriarchal monster. Across the road lives Willie Bachhuber, a local schoolteacher who has just been suspended for dangling a pupil out of the class window.
The first act of the novel unspools at a leisurely pace, as we meet these characters, and are alerted to the simmering resentment of Titch not getting a Ford dealership while Irene thinks he should take up the “Australian” Holden. Bachhuber is also moonlighting as the genius on a radio quiz show and feeling longings for his female rival.
The second act involves the changes of perspective, as Titch has enrolled in the Redex Trial, a car race around the entirety of Australia, in order to gain some advertising traction. Willie is taken on as navigator as he has a lifelong love of cartography. Irene, it seems, is a bit of a speed freak, and Titch needs to get all this done as his investors have, well, invested in it. It almost seems as if it is a different novel entirely, and that the characters have metamorphosed overnight. Patient Irene becomes driven. Titch is less of a man than he was. Willie is a kind of sage, who fortuitously finds out about his heritage. There are coincidences aplenty and a tour of different Australian landscapes.
The third act is – well – all over the place. This is a book which cannot decide if it is a comedy or a tragedy or an elegy or a pastoral. Though most of the book, roughly, alternates between being narrated by either Irene or Willie, a few new voices intrude; only one with any narrative significance. The prose has an awkwardly quaintsy feel to it: the first page alone has “fiddle-faddle”, “bobby-dazzler” and “ha bloody ha” on it. There are many more instances as it progresses. Carey has always had a great capacity to write artfully artlessly – True History Of The Kelly Gang being the best example, but My Life As A Fake also had the same quality.
There is a very strange “time-iness” about this novel. When is it being narrated? To whom is it being narrated? The characters speak as if from a future point, but where that point is we are never told.
At the same time it is creakily nostalgic. “You tell us what is happening now,” one character says, adding: “I could not give a f*** about what happened a hundred years ago.” Yet the book is obsessed with that very problem. Feminism, in the form of Irene’s driving capabilities and lack of recognition for them, and racial issues, crudely done through a revelation that seems snitched from Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, are evident throughout.
At the end we get what I assume is the great cadenza – “What may seem to be the signs of madness might be understood by someone familiar with alchemical literature as an encryption whose function is to insist that our mother country is a foreign land whose language we have not yet earned the right to speak”. Very well and good, but it states the opposite of what it proposes. Has Carey “earned the right to speak” for Aboriginal communities, or for women for that matter?
The one adjective I would use for this novel is “freewheeling”. It jumps from idea to idea, from plot to plot, from doomed romance to doomed romance as if it were a collection of short stories hastily put into the form of a novel. Certain plot points are made, cavalierly, and never mentioned again. The good bits are very good, but as Longfellow wrote, “when she was good, she was very, very good, and when she was bad she was horrid”.
There is a mastery of voice, and a pleasant surrealism in all this, but it cannot make up for a cobbledy book, which often reads like a bad imitation of Carey’s former glories.
A Long Way From Home, by Peter Carey, Faber & Faber, £17.99