Books

On the road to find out

Sydney Morning Herald/Fairfax Media

What a delightful writer Peter Carey is, and how varied are the delights he offers. “A Long Way From Home,’’ the 14th novel by the two-time Booker winner, displays many of the typically polychromatic Carey pleasures. There’s the picaresque plot, simultaneously shaggy and driving (see: “The True History of the Kelly Gang’’). There’s the fascination with forgery and trickery, secrets hidden and revealed (see: “My Life as a Fake’’). There’s the wedding of a deeply comic vision to an acute sense of how all history, the history of Carey’s native Australia perhaps more than most, is a record of barbarism.

Above all, though, there’s the supple and musical prose, possessed of a distinct rhythm and filled with flashes of poetic brilliance. “A Long Way From Home’’ contains another Carey staple, dueling narrators — an impulsive, charismatic young woman named Irene Bobs; a melancholic but equally interesting man named Willie Bachhuber — both of whom offer gems throughout. From Irene: “My lips only brushed the fine blond hairs and I remarked his furrowed knuckles, as if his fingers were frowning too.” From Willie: “Soon I was following the funnels of the headlights down the empty bitumen, pushing back the curtain of the dark until the torn edge of horizon emerged in the east.”

Yet despite these familiar pleasures, there’s also a new element. This novel is the first time that Carey has taken on Australia’s many crimes against its indigenous peoples, and it’s his complex weaving of this subject with a more purely pleasurable road trip plot that makes “A Long Way From Home’’ so thrilling.

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The novel is set in the 1950s and centers on the Redex Trial: a 17-day auto race around Australia that tests not speed but reliability and stamina. Irene, her husband, Titch, and Willie are a team, three of the “[t]wo 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.” Willie, a map lover, is the designated navigator, tasked with helping the two drivers avoid the bumps that might break their chassis, the cliffs that might break their necks. Irene and Titch take on the dangerous trek as publicity for their new car dealership, Willie to shock himself back into life. (He’s lost his job and is dodging collectors.)

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Slowly and obliquely, this fun jaunt — and it’s great fun in Carey’s hands — becomes something more serious: an exploration of the secrets of national and personal history. At the beginning of his journey, Willie thinks, “I had never seen an Aboriginal. They were all far away in dusty history, or in hot places where they threw stones at passing cars.” But as the trio drives into the bush, Willie recognizes that Australia’s indigenous people aren’t just dusty history. A fun jaunt becomes a journey into the heart of darkness, a visible record of the state’s many and living sins: “blackfellahs” have to present certificates of exemption in order “to walk freely through town without being arrested”; Irene finds by the roadside a baby’s skull, “a tiny thing, as fragile and powdery as an emu egg.”

The map that Willie relies upon becomes overlaid as they travel with a more ghostly one, a map of state-sanctioned savagery, “a forgotten colonial battleground, the blood-soaked site of a violent ‘contact’ between the indigenous blacks and the imperial whites.” And, as Willie for complicated plot reasons falls out of the race and in with an indigenous community, a third kind of map appears, too: the map of songlines, the paths aboriginal people believed were cut by ancient beings during the supernatural age of Dreaming and remembered in song. These are maps as stories, stories as maps: “the story of the wedge-tailed eagle riding on the snake’s back and making the great river . . . an ancient story not shown on any strip map.”

As the novel proceeds, Willie comes to learn things about his own parentage as well, how it too arises from Australia’s “blood-soaked” history. The journey and the discoveries are exhilarating (“This is my life at last,” he thinks) and radically disorienting: “I did not know what world I was in.”

To be an Australian novelist and not to have taken on such topics is, as Carey admits, to have limited his otherwise wide-ranging novelistic intelligence. But it’s also to tell a story that doesn’t really seem to belong to him. Here’s how Carey has described his decision to write such a novel: “I have to do this; I can’t be doing this.”

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But of course he can do this. Any novelist can write about anything, as long as he or she does it in an aesthetically convincing and morally attuned way, and Carey does both splendidly here. “A Long Way From Home’’ charts old territory and strikes out in new directions. It’s one of Carey’s best, and boldest, efforts yet.

A LONG WAY FROM HOME

By Peter Carey

Knopf, 336 pp., $26.95

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Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of “Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period.’’