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Peter Carey offers what might be his most personal work of fiction in his 14th novel, A Long Way From Home.

A Long Way From Home
Peter Carey
Random House Canada

Peter Carey's 14th novel is a road trip through Australian colonialism, a story of divergent paths and choices about what to do with the past.

A Long Way from Home opens in the author's hometown of Bacchus Marsh, just outside Melbourne. It's the early 1950s. Irene and Titch Bobs plan on opening a dealership selling the GM Holden, "Australia's Own Car." As a marketing ploy, the Bobses – along with their Teutonic neighbour, Willie – enter the Redex Trial, billed as a journey through "real" Australia – not a race but a test of everyday cars' reliability under punishing conditions, 15,400 kilometres around the country. It's a perfect set-up to interrogate Australia and just how much realness these characters can take.

Carey has a long concern with Australian history and has never ignored its colonial legacy. What sets A Long Way from Home apart is its level of attention to aboriginal people and whether his handling of the past here represents a potential turn in his work. Carey arguably implicates himself here – a question not of guilt for historical events, but of responsibility for the past he has inherited. It's a question that should be entirely familiar to Canadians.

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"I learned long ago to distrust local history," the unnamed narrator says in Oscar and Lucinda, Carey's first novel to win the Booker Prize. The theme of untrustworthy, questionable, hidden and forgotten histories runs through Carey's books. "This history is for you and will contain no single lie may I burn in Hell if I speak false," Ned Kelly writes in True History of the Kelly Gang (Carey's second Booker win). Ned Kelly writes his testimony against "lies and silences," yet the novel constantly undermines its own claims to truth. In Amnesia, journalist Felix Moore is obsessed with forgotten moments in Australian history: the 1942 "Battle of Brisbane" and the "bloodless coup" of 1975.

In the case of A Long Way from Home, the theme is articulated through the colonized "writing back" against the colonizer's version of events. This writing is not Carey's own, but the inclusion of a lightly edited transcript from aboriginal narratives describing European-Aborigine relations. These narratives, called "Captain Cook sagas," are not stories of Captain Cook the man; instead, the captain here personifies all Europeans. According to Deborah Bird Rose, a professor at the University of New South Wales, these sagas are records of colonial domination and destruction that highlight the injustice of "Captain Cook's law." The selection from these records that Carey uses in the novel come from Mudbura lawman Hobbles Danaiyarri, as told to Rose. (Carey consulted many sources in writing the novel, including a manuscript read by author and historian Steve Kinnane, a Marda Marda from Mirrowoong country.) This history comes at a critical juncture in the novel and it is significant that Carey does not use his own words here.

A historical novel, by one definition, is a novel in which the action of the story takes place prior to the author's birth. Too clean and precise a definition perhaps for a sprawling, contradictory genre – but it captures that subjective sense of what separates the past from history: What's history to me might not be history to you, because each of us carries our past within us. A Long Way from Home, which takes place in 1954, is by this definition not a historical novel, since its author was born in 1943. That's significant because it's easy to distance oneself from historical abuses. In A Long Way from Home, Titch Bobs doesn't care to know that a landscape was the site of a massacre a hundred years ago. He wants to know the road conditions here and now. The novel's impulses are the opposite of Titch's, however: it draws events nearer, into the realm of our responsibility. Settler colonialism is a terrible inheritance. This novel insists: It isn't history yet.

Carey was born and raised in Bacchus Marsh, where his parents ran a GM dealership, Carey Motors. A Long Way from Home isn't the first time he's used this experience in his fiction. He set his fourth novel, The Tax Inspector, at Catchprice Motors, a used-car dealership turned "family grave" outside Sydney – there's likely little similarity between the Catchprices and the Careys, though. In Amnesia, Felix is the son of a Bacchus Marsh car dealer, thus setting up the character as the author's (buffoonish, hypocritical, myopic) alter ego. A Long Way from Home isn't autobiographical: Carey's parents never entered the Redex Trial and he takes pains to note that his aviator grandfather was nothing like the novel's obnoxious, bullying grandpa. But this might be Carey's most personal work of fiction – ironic, given the title: this one hits closest to home. In True History, Carey used Faulkner's line as the novel's epigraph: "The past is not dead. It is not even past." A Long Way from Home is the Carey book where that sentiment is most true.

Alongside A Long Way from Home, I read Yankunytjatjara/Kokatha poet Ali Cobby Eckermann's 2012 memoir Too Afraid to Cry, published in North America this year. Cobby Eckermann, recently awarded Yale's Windham-Campbell Prize for Poetry, is one of the Stolen Generations, the estimated 100,000 Australian Aborigines separated from family as children as part of assimilationist government policy. Too Afraid to Cry is about her journey from displacement and shame to strength in the bonds of family and pride upon finding her country. The Stolen Generations, comparable to the Sixties Scoop in Canada, is also significant context to A Long Way from Home.

The dispossession and parcelling of land. An education system designed to erase millenniums of teaching. The sexual abuse. A eugenicist obsession with "caste" and fractions of blood. All this within a context of white nationalism. Being a Canadian studying Australian history is like looking into a distorted mirror: despite the differences, you recognize the face.

A character in A Long Way from Home looks at his own hands and sees in them "the hands of Orlac," a reference to the story of a man who, after losing his hands in an accident, receives transplants from an executed murderer.

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We can think of any novel as a cloud of life matter swirling around the vortex of a question. In A Long Way from Home, all this stuff – all the ways the past is made personal – churns around a question appropriate to a Canadian audience as well.

Let's say you've inherited the hands of a murderer. What are you supposed to do with them?

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