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Onyx reviews: A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 02/01/2018

Two worlds collide in this meandering 1954 tale when the Bobs move to Bacchus Marsh (where Carey grew up), near Melbourne, next door to 26-year-old Willie Bachhuber, a man who—in addition to being on suspension from his teaching job for dangling a racist student out the window by his heels—has gained notoriety for his winning performance on a radio quiz show. People think Willie must be rich because of the prize checks he receives, but the show is rigged and Willie won't make anything until it gains sponsors. The show is recorded at a different time each week so Willie can avoid the authorities who are after him for abandoning his wife and infant son without paying child support.

Titch Bobs, the best car salesman in the region, and his wife Irene are a diminutive couple, their size important only in that it affords them the same advantage it does for jockeys. They are light, so when they are manipulated into entering the Redex Reliability Trial, a grueling 18-day, 10,000 mile promotional rally that circumnavigates Australia, they can take Willie—who is a whiz with maps—along as a navigator without compromising their fuel efficiency. The Redex isn't a race: it's an endurance test with complicated rules. Arriving at checkpoints early incurs penalties as harsh as showing up late, and large parts of the route are through hazardous, barely charted territory.

Although the narrative alternates between Irene Bobs and fair-haired Willie Bachhuber, this is really Willie's story. Raised by a Lutheran pastor, he is nostalgic but ambivalent about his German heritage. However, as the Redex takes the trio into the Kimberley, a region with a strong Aboriginal presence, Willie makes a life-altering discovery about who he really is and where he comes from.

The story transitions from the harrowing account of a "race," where a wrong move can be fatal, to a story about race, about the self-dubbed "blackfellahs" who are Australia's analogs to the Native Americans in the US. Laws have been created that expressly prohibit Aboriginals from participating in many facets of Australian life. They aren't put on reservations, but they might as well have been, as their movements and actions were restricted and many have been cut off from ancestral lands. Willie finds himself enmeshed in their culture, trying to wend his way through a variety of pidgen Englishes and unfamiliar traditions that are part of their everyday lives. He discovers that maps, one of his true loves, are anathema to the Aboriginal people, a creation of "whitefellahs."

It takes quite a while to get to the meat of the action. The first part of the book focuses on the Bobs' efforts to set up a car dealership and to get out from under the oppressive weight of Titch's father, a pompous ne'er-do-well blowhard who seems to be actively out to sabotage his son's career and life. Willie, in the meantime, navigates the hazardous course of romance, only to discover that doesn't run true.

The tone shifts to a more adventurous note once the Redex gets under way. Irene is a hugely talented driver, but her size and gender render her nearly invisible to the thousands of fans following daily reports of their progress. Although it is her skill that will be responsible should the Bobs prevail in the Trial, she knows she'll get none of the credit, not even from her husband, who risked everything to enter. She finds herself drifting closer to Willie, causing marital friction which explodes when a family tragedy occurs in the middle of the Trial. Sadly, Carey, too, essentially abandons Irene's story when the focus of the book turns to Willie's discovery.

This blow-up throws everyone off course, none so much as Willie, who finds himself in unfamiliar territory, among unfamiliar people who know far more about his history and past than he does. Carey doesn't shy away from exposing the reprehensible underbelly of Australia's past, and Willie finds himself caught between two worlds, to neither of which he fully belongs.

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