Review 1473: A Long Way from Home

A Long Way from Home is almost like two different novels, starting out as a light-hearted romp and finishing with the Australian treatment of its indigenous inhabitants. It is set in 1954 Australia, all over it.

Irene Bobs and her husband Titch are tiny people with a great will to succeed, but they are hampered by the activities of Dangerous Dan Bobs, Titch’s father, who seems to be working against them. When Titch, who is the best car salesman in Southeastern Australia, wants to open his own Ford dealership, Dan prevents it using his influence with his cronies at Ford. Having opened a junk yard, Dan continually drops off expensive objects at Titch’s and then charges him for them.

Irene always vigorously supports Titch against Dan, so when Dan scuppers the Ford dealership, she has already arranged something with GMC. Then, the two get the idea to compete with one of their cars in the Redex Reliability Trial, a grueling test of a car’s endurance on horrendous roads all around Australia. Irene and Titch will be drivers, and their neighbor, Willie Bachhuber, will navigate. Of course, Dan decides to compete against them.

Willie is a recently fired schoolteacher. He is also a competitor on a quiz show and a fugitive, who left his wife after she had a black baby and is wanted for child support. His quiz show work, after a long run, ends when his infatuation with his competitor interferes with his thought processes. He is a great reader of maps, however.

The novel starts out bright and energetic, with vibrant and quirky first-person narration by Irene alternated with that of Willie. It takes a darker turn, though, after an accident with Dan. Soon, Willie is separated from his companions in far Western Australia.

I was really taken with this book, especially at its zippy and vivacious start. I liked the characters, and I thought the ending covers important history about aboriginal abuse. However, these comments don’t convey how the novel zips along in its own quirky way.

I read this book for my Walter Scott prize project.

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Day 567: Jack Maggs

Cover for Jack MaggsBest Book of the Week!
Jack Maggs belongs in a growing genre of fiction that reinterprets a classic novel. In this case, the novel works in two ways: as another look at Great Expectations from the point of view of a different character and as a loose work of metafiction.

Jack Maggs is a convict illegally returned from Australia when he arrives at the door of a gentleman named Henry Phipps, only to find no one at home. The maid from a neighboring house, Mercy Larkin, thinks he has come to the wrong house as an applicant for a footman position in her own. Maggs decides to take the position so that he can watch the neighboring house for Phipps’ return.

Maggs’ employer is Percy Buckle, once a grocer, who inherited some money and fancies himself a patron of the arts. That night Buckle entertains at dinner a famous author, Tobias Oates, who dabbles in mesmerism. During dinner, Maggs is attacked by a horrible pain in his face, which makes him collapse. Oates hypnotizes him in an attempt to cure him but also gets him to tell some of his secrets.

Soon the two are locked in a struggle. Oates has mentioned knowing of a thief-taker, whom Maggs wants to employ to find Phipps. Oates only agrees to give him the name in exchange for two weeks of allowing him to mesmerize Maggs. Oates, who has realized quickly that Maggs is a fugitive, wants to learn about the criminal mind for an upcoming book. But Maggs becomes dangerous when he learns Oates has found out his secrets.

This tale is really gripping and ultimately suspenseful. It is also very Dickensian in nature—in its storytelling, its empathy for the poor, its dark London atmosphere, its character names, and its rather convoluted but satisfying plot. Our sympathy is all for Maggs, who has built up in his mind a fantasy about Phipps, whom he educated and made a gentleman, and who he does not realize is hiding from him in dread.

Oates is meant to be Dickens himself, and he is depicted less sympathetically. He misuses Maggs in service of his writing, but he is not much more responsible toward members of his own family.

Although Carey won a Booker prize for Oscar and Lucinda, I think Jack Maggs is much more powerful.

Day 309: Parrot and Olivier in America

Cover for Parrot and OlivierBest Book of the Week!

Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America is a fictional riff upon Alexis de Tocqueville’s trip to America in the early 19th century, from which resulted the classic Democracy in America. Olivier de Garmont is the character meant to be Tocqueville, an aristocrat with liberal leanings who is nevertheless an elitist snob.

Parrot is his servant, a man who has lived a colorful but frustrating life. An Englishman, he has had his life disrupted since he was a boy by another French aristocrat, the Marquis de Tilbot, who spirited him away from England after his father, a typesetter, was arrested as an accomplice to forgery.

In dangerous post-revolutionary France, Olivier’s mother has decided it would be wise for Olivier to leave the country, as his liberal leanings have offended the conservatives, but he is unacceptable to the liberals because of his aristocratic birth. She ends up shipping him off to America with Parrot as his secretary, on loan from Tilbot and instructed to report back Olivier’s movements.

But America inflames Parrot’s own democratic leanings. He believes himself to have a talent for engraving that he has never been able to develop while working as Tilbot’s servant, and he resents his status as a “vassal.” While Olivier feels that their rocky start has developed into a relationship that is almost love, Parrot affectionately? calls him “Lord Migraine.”

This novel is narrated in alternating chapters by Olivier and Parrot. It is entertaining–wittily and robustly written–although sometimes we seem to have stumbled into a Dickens novel, especially when reading about Parrot’s early life. In fact, I read recently that Carey wrote an earlier book, Jack Maggs, based on Magwich of Great Expectations, so that feeling is probably not too far off.