Book Review: A Long Way From Home, by Peter Carey

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_a-long_way_from_home.jpgThere is so much life in this novel, such exuberance and energy. It was a delight to read, at times flamboyant in its language, always deliciously descriptive and vivid, rich and colourful from beginning to end. How does one make the arid and rugged landscape of Australia lush and stunning? I don’t know, but somehow Peter Carey, twice winner of the Booker Prize, as well as numerous other awards, does.

It’s a bit of a romp, but there is also a serious side to this novel, essentially about two people finding themselves, discovering who they really are, emerging from the restraints society has placed on them. This is 1950’s Australia, still dealing with the consequences of British colonialism, dealing not terribly successfully with the Aboriginal people, and simply trying to make it, to get ahead in life, make a better life than one’s parents had.

Irene Bobs is married to Titch Bobs, the most successful Ford car salesman in his region of Victoria. They have two young children, life is pretty good, except for Titch’s appalling father Dan. To get away from Dan, Irene and Titch move the family to the town of Bacchus Marsh, 33 miles from Melbourne and home town of Peter Carey himself.

Irene is one clever woman, under rated and under-appreciated as many women in post-war Australia were. She thinks a Holden dealership is the future for her and Titch, but there is the problem of raising enough money to open their own dealership. Winning the Redex Trial, a wild and crazy car race all around the perimeter of Australia would set them up perfectly. Irene is also a most talented driver, she loves to drive fast, by the seat of her pants, and she knows they have a chance. So she enters herself and Titch, and their navigator Willie Bachhuber.

Willie is an intriguing young man, only 27 years old, a school teacher who loves geography, a failure in love – he has also got himself into a spot of bother at his latest school. He happens to live next door to the Bobs family and is slowly pulled into their slightly chaotic family life. Recognising his incredible talent with maps, geography and anything to do with direction, Irene talks him into becoming the navigator. And so the scene is set for an endurance test, not only in the physical race sense, but also in a whole lot of other ways, as Willie and Irene face some pretty tough personal challenges along the way.

Maps and navigation become an analogy for Willie’s search for himself. While in the car race, Willie is confronted with some very big life issues, literally turning everything he knew about himself upside down. It is at this point the story sort of veers off the car race path, and into Aboriginal culture, the dream time, pathways, the long-term effects of British imperialism. I actually found of lot of this hard to enjoy reading. Much like a map it meandered, had some dead ends, lost threads, strange illustrations.  I am sure a true-blue Aussie would get far more of this than I did!

However, this book is still a great yarn from a master storyteller. There are some wonderful characters – Irene is marvellous – loving mother, wife, unbelievably feisty and determined, she is the heart and soul of the book. The novel becomes more about Willie, but it is Irene that holds everything and everyone together.

Within the fast action and high energy level of the narrative there is a serious side, in that people aren’t always what they seem, and that family secrets always, always, always cause more harm in the long run than any thread of good the short term may offer.

by Felicity Murray

A Long Way From Home
by Peter Carey
Published by Faber & Faber
ISBN 9780143787075

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Book Review:On the Java Ridge, by Jock Serong

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_on_the_java_ridge.jpgThere’s something disturbingly satisfying about those rare novels that deliver an upper-cut to your gut. If you’re a masochist like me when it comes to novels, pick up On the Java Ridge.

Literary award-winning Jock Serong packs a punch on board the Java Ridge, an authentic Indonesian phinisi that ferries Australian tourists to remote surfing spots in the Savu Sea. Against the better judgement of Australian skipper Isi Natoli, a group of excited tourists plunge into the reef of uninhabited Dana Island, having spotted virgin surf. Outnumbered, Isi is forced to concede to the tourists’ demands for epic swells and anchors the Java Ridge in the island’s sheltered lagoon. After an idyllic afternoon among the waves, the group set up camp on the shore. With a tropical storm brewing to the north, they hope for a dry night ahead.

Hundreds of kilometres away, the Takalar has also set sail. On board is young Roya and her pregnant mother. They are now only an ocean away from the Promised Land, Australia, after fleeing persecution in Iraq. As the only survivors of their family, Roya, her mother, and her unborn sister have journeyed long and far in search of safety and a new life. Unbeknownst to both the Java Ridge skipper Isi Natoli and the asylum-seekers on board the Takalar, the notoriously refugee-unfriendly Australian government is on the eve of a general election and is relentless in preventing any last minute immigration scandals.

When the Takalar’s engine runs of its mounts and capsizes on the reef of tainted Dana Island, Roya and her mother come face to face with a watery reaper. Dozens lose their lives to the swirling Savu Sea. Yet despite the stormy skies Roya and her mother’s stars align, and they are pulled to safety by the Java Ridge’s skipper, Isi. Woken by the screams for help, identifiable in any language, the Australian tourists rescue as many people from the doomed Takalar as they can. A make-shift triage operation is set up on the island as the Takalar sinks to the ocean floor. Grappling with few supplies and needing urgent medical attention, Isi decides to load the Australians and asylum-seekers alike onto the Java Ridge and set sail for Australia.

Meanwhile in Canberra, the Minister for Border Integrity, Cassius Calvert, is beginning to make some ugly discoveries. Placed minister as a pawn, Cassius is self-absorbed and incompetent. The government has recently announced a new hard-line anti-asylum seeker policy that has the potential to cause public outcry. With the general election looming, it is vital that voters don’t scare. As Cassius starts to realise the grisly nature of the very policy he signed off on, his ineptitude proves him to be perfectly primed not to be able to prevent impending disaster. All the while, the Java Ridge chugs nearer.

Serong has a knack for creating characters the reader will invest in, and it is thanks to this skill that On the Java Ridge gets the reader eating out of the palm of one hand, and then delivers a sucker-punch with the other. Throughout the journey, we are subtly but expertly invited into the rationale of each character, resulting in some of the best understood and cared-for characters I’ve ever read (yes – even deplorable Cassius).

On the Java Ridge is a politically poignant thriller that is hugely relevant as developed nations grapple with the influx of uncontrolled migration. While certain governments draw international criticism on their hard-line immigration policies, there is a simultaneous rise in the popularity of notions such as those carried in the hashtag #RefugeesWelcome aimed against such policies. On the Java Ridge pushes readers to question how far their governments would go, and how far they would allow their governments to go in order to protect their borders. Serong’s novel is a timely reminder that we are all human, and just how easily we can lose touch with that shared identity.

Reviewed by Abbie Treloar

On the Java Ridge
by Jock Serong
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925498394

 

Book Review: East, by Peri Hoskins

Available at selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_eastThis is the second book by Peri Hoskins featuring the character Vince Osborne, a suburban lawyer who has the feeling life is leaving him behind. Disillusioned with representing petty criminals, he chucks in his job and decides to go on a road trip.  A journey to reconnect with who he is and what he should be doing with his life.

Vince drives back to the city, visiting old friends and haunts from his university days, before setting off.  He bunks down with a friend of a friend to make a plan.  He sorts out supplies, getting his car fitted with an LPG tank but leaving the petrol tank in place, realising that not every small town will have an LPG supply.  There is an easy familiarity, as he slots back into old friendships before heading east to begin his journey, writing a journal along the way.

He starts off picking up hitchhikers, to break the monotony of the barren countryside. Each town/city changes, as does the accommodation available, but somehow, they all seem to merge. The only changing detail is the people he meets along the way as he makes small talk with staff and fellow travelers at the various places he stays. Some just drifting from one place to another.  He starts to wind down and get into the zone.

Old mining towns with hardened characters that seem to always go with hard places: this is a journey of self-discovery for Vince.  He applies for a job in one of the gold mines – hard, hard, physical work but one where he finds satisfaction.

At first I thought – oh hell, another one of “those books” where it just goes nowhere, but how wrong I was.  This is a book that ended up even questioning my own life and where I was heading – how I could change the mundane into something a lot more exciting. As Vince discovers, dreams aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

East
by Peri Hoskins
Tane Kaha Publications
ISBN 9780473251284

The Art of Free Travel: A Frugal Family Adventure, by Patrick Jones and Meg Ulman

cv_the_art_of_free_travelAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

When I was in my mid-twenties, I walked through the south of Spain. Partly inspired by the English writer Laurie Lee and his account of the period he spent in the 1930’s walking through Spain, I spent a month or two walking along agricultural roads or on the gravelled shoulders of highways. Once I had overcome my fear of wild dogs and malevolent people (the former I learned to avoid, the latter never materialised- Spanish society has a soft spot for pilgrims), I experienced a certain blissful freedom: in the words of Lee, I grew fat with time. With this in mind, you could understand how The Art of Free Travel, the book as well as the ethos at its core, would in my case be a seed dropped on fertile ground.

In November 2013′ 2013, Patrick Jones, Meg Ulman, their toddler, Woody, eleven/twelve year old Zephyr and Zero the Jack Russell (hereafter collectively known as ‘The Artist as Family’ or TAAF) left New South Wales on touring bicycles. They returned in January 2015, having covered 9000 kilometres of Australian territory, mainly along the east coast, inland at times. Daylesford to Cape York return, for the most part on homicidally busy highways. Jones rode a tandem with Zephyr behind and Zero out front; Ulman had Woody in a bike-seat out back (total combined weight: >300kg). They primarily ‘stealth-camped’ ie. pitched their tents in non-official sites, beside rivers, the sea, in reserves and parks, near the main road when desperate. With limited cargo space, carried food was kept to a minimum. Foraging for ‘bush-tucker’ (walked- or biked-for wild food) was integral and successful; the book closes with a 256 item list of the free foods and medicines located and used along the way. The art of free travel and a frugal family adventure? In actual fact, yes.

travel_by-bikeAt this point, you could be forgiven for exclaiming “Why would you do this, with (to!) a toddler and a pre-teen?! It’s hard at the very least, outright dangerous at worst. Have ye no sanity, no sense of responsibility?!” And you would not be alone. The authors asked themselves these questions, waking sweating in the night in the weeks before they set out: “We were sure we were going to kill our kids on these totally unsuitable roads for bicycles. It was madness. Jesus! I could never forgive myself if they were killed. We spent our last nights in our emptied-out house… feeling a mix of dreadful foreboding and restless excitement.” Readers will recognise this train of thought; I experience it every time my family goes on a road trip, even in the relative security of a car.

Describing how his family became car-free in the first place, Patrick Jones writes:

“I was too often cooped up in a metal bubble on four wheels, technologically brilliant but ecologically stupid. I resented flashing past environments rich in intricate life that could only be experienced and better understood by going slow. I didn’t want conditioned air, I didn’t want radio heads, I didn’t want speed and glass and oil wars.”

Meg Ulman’s explanation of their developing desire to shed routine and have a family adventure provides further insight:

“…Camping, the lack of boundary between inside and outside, how brave it feels to sleep under the stars in summer and crawl into the womb of a tent when it’s cold. I love how intrepid I always feel with my head-torch on… no floors to sweep, no cleaning toothpaste spray from the bathroom mirror, no wiping dried milk from the stovetop… we felt suffocated by routine and more than ready to untie ourselves.”

Readers will be familiar too with these longings and aversions. New Zealanders tend to respond according to circumstance and personality: a camping trip to Golden Bay, a week on the Central Otago Rail Trail, perhaps a trip to Bali… but what propels the Artist as Family out the door and onto their bicycles for over a year? Big ideas and Big ideals, accompanied by saddlebags full of capability, fueled by serious willpower. The activism that lies at the heart of The Art of Free Travel will likely have readers shifting in our seats as we consider the choices we make, our willingness often to submit to comfortable numbness, and our complicity in cultural, economic and environmental unjustness. The action of living your ideals, and steering in the opposite direction to the norm, is guaranteed to cause friction, both within a group and in external encounters.

AaFnewbanner2015This is exactly what occurs, as TAAF rubs up against not only landowners and taxpayers, the law, traffic on the Bruce Highway, dehydration and aggressive fauna (there is something truly Homeric about the guaranteed appearance of wild dogs in this sort of journey), but also against its own constituent parts. There are arguments, negotiations, complex dynamics, tears and realised fears. The trip is not a lark; Jones and Ulman don’t beat around the bush. They both write excellently, from the heart and head, about the pain and joy of the ongoing adventure but also about issues important to them: raising children, the abuse of indigenous rights, and the degradation of Australia’s environment. The details of emotion, place, character and dialogue are finely observed; the whole epic shebang is shaped into a coherent whole, with credit also due to the editors at at NewSouth.

Breathing fresh air, eating fresh food and having a lot of good fun can be done to a greater or lesser extent in a variety of ways, but it’s hard to imagine a more comprehensive way than that chosen as a way of life by TAAF. And coming back to that fraction too much friction that was a companion to the family adventure: perhaps, as is sometimes the case, this friction contributed to the creation of the pearl that was the adventure, which became the pearl that is The Art of Free Travel.

*The artwork and writing of Patrick Jones, Meg Ulman and TAAF, as well as details of their current book-promoting bicycle-tour, can be found at permapoesis.blogspot.com and theartistasfamily.blogspot.com

Reviewed by Aaron Blaker

The Art of Free Travel: A Frugal Family Adventure
by Patrick Jones and Meg Ulman
NewSouth Publishing
ISBN 9781742234434