Thursday, April 26, 2018

A Long Way from Home by Peter Carey

With this new Booker-winning novel, Australian-born author Peter Carey has gone off the map. This story hinges on maps. After all, how could Mr. and Mrs. Bobs compete in the 1953 car rally around Australia without them?

Fifteen years of marriage and two kids later, Irene is still in love with the natty Titch. After the race, she sees her "born salesman" another way. As he poses with his companions "dressed like criminals and racecourse touts," his teeth are "a perfect echo of the Holden's grill."

Thinking he's German, the schoolteacher and radio show quiz champ next door suffers a "phantom homesickness." This lends "a distinctive colour" to his soul until he learns who his parents are. Discovering his true identity evokes "a searing pain." Panic washes over him "like sheet lightning."

Having just lost both his jobs, Willy agrees to be navigator for Mr and Mrs Bobs in the Redex race, and he does so for a time. The revelation of his undreamed-of origin takes place in remote Quamby Downs, where he's arrived apparently by chance. Finding himself related to "a mob of Aborigines," Willy too must learn to think another way. He does his best to understand and befriend his aboriginal relatives, though he's not yet confident Lochy (aka Dr. Battery) "would not hold me responsible for the sins of my biological father."

Willy is kept a virtual prisoner in Quamby Downs, all but forced to accept the job of teacher there. The school board pays him "twenty pounds a week to erase the past, to...make [the Aboriginals] as white as possible in the hopes that they would grow up as stock boys and house lubras and punkah wallahs." Instead, unbeknownst to his distant employers, Willy learns how to enter the map of the "blackfellahs." Even so, he wants nothing more than to escape back south to town life. Instead, a desperate bid to help someone else get away from Quamby brings trouble down on his own head.

By the end of the jaw-dropping story, the reader too must reassess, and think in new ways. Early on, certain details are dropped to prepare the way for the revelations to come. Where the sheep graze over vast tracts of land, once the plains were covered in shoulder-high kangaroo grass. As well as foreshadowing the Willy's discoveries on the road, this was for me a chilling echo the Canadian prairies before and after the buffalo were wiped out, the people displaced and subjected to brutal attempts at assimilation, and the land plowed up for farming.

Told alternately through two engaging voices, this story rings with the deep truth that the best historic fiction can convey. Irene, the feisty 1950s housewife and mother who remains supportive of the vain and egoistic Titch came fully alive for me. She refuses to internalize the sexist and racist frontier society values that surround her, and her natural sympathy for the tragic figure of the shy and gentle Willy Bachuber brings her into conflict with her husband, who grows in confidence until he resembles his destructive and boastful father, whom Irene could never stand.

As Titch takes pride in his slick radio ad fame and devotes himself to earning more money through car and tire franchises, Irene finds herself unable to ignore Willy's tragic family situation. She can't forget the horrific discovery she made about Australia's history of colonization during the rally. In her own way, Irene comes to terms with her heavy knowledge and takes appropriate action.

This book is an excellent choice for anyone willing to open the lid on the violent history society has a way of keeping hidden. In the era of Reconciliation, the first and most necessary act is to witness the past on which our lives are founded.

I found this portrait of 1950s Australia chillingly evocative of the same era in Canada. As a young child in a prairie town, I felt the bewildering sting of knowing that adults around me disrespected people they didn't know for reasons of race and background. They spoke and behaved in ways I recognized instinctively as wrong.

No comments:

Post a Comment