It is a novel one reads with admiration and respect, but it fails to touch the heart as successfully as Carey’s Booker-prizewinning novels Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang. That’s because Titch and his wife aren’t only physically tiny. They are dwarfed by the size of the issues Carey expects them to support.
With all its inventive momentum, all its pleasurable beats, the fast pace of the race, the scenery unfurling, the novel ends up far from where it started, in a place of historical reckoning and colonial guilt. Carey’s longtime readers will appreciate his arrival here after so many Australian journeys, and this entry point might serve as a template for moving forward, a way to ensure that Carey’s polyphonic symphony of voices isn’t damned by a notable absence. Using a wild road race, he’s found a journey into Australia’s broken past.
Is it a journey worth making with him? For this reader, the answer is a resounding “yes”. A Long Way From Home is not a political tract, but a novel whose powerful ambience, multiple ironies, sly humour and slew of memorable characters are impressive on their own terms...However, the book also has a legitimate socio-political point to make. Rooted in a horrifying past, it has its sights fixed on a hopeful future.
It is interesting that Carey’s publishers promote this novel as his “late style masterpiece”; what kept striking me, at least at first, was how similar it was in style and substance to his earlier work. The conceit of the Redex Trial imbues the novel with the same sense of rollicking picaresque that we got in Oscar and Lucinda. There’s the same deeply felt engagement with the Australian landscape that we found in True History of the Kelly Gang...At the end of the novel, Bachhuber’s son recognises that his father’s life had been spent wrestling with the problem of the ethical representation of a terrible historical wrong: how to “record the truth and keep the secret”. Carey himself has achieved exactly this, in his best novel in years, maybe decades.
A Long Way from Home (whose title acquires multiple meanings as the novel progresses) closes in, by a devious route, on the dispossession of Australia’s Aboriginals. What opens as a story about a race ends as one about race. As Willie the teacher learns a great deal, pages fill with graphic instances of the murder and maltreatment of Australia’s indigenous inhabitants. Titch (whose sleeves hide cigarette burns) and Willie (who has a hole beneath a shoulder blade) are both scarred by an ugly past. Intensely engaging in more ways than one, Carey’s high-octane novel shows that their country is, too.
Carey’s eye for zestful storytelling is as sharp as ever — as is his ventriloquist’s ear. Not since True History of the Kelly Gang (2000) has he seemed so on-song...And to an extent it disguises the fact that A Long Way from Home’s strength — that hyperactive zest — is also its chief flaw. Often it feels as if the author is not so much writing a story as wrestling a whole armful of them; no sooner does he have one pinned down than another escapes, squirming through the antipodean dust... for all its comic brio, A Long Way from Home tugs inescapably towards tragedy, and often seems overwhelmed by it.