Peter Carey’s fourteenth novel goes gleefully around in circles. The most obvious example is the Redex Around Australia Reliability Trial, described by Irene Bobs, one of three narrators, as ‘the greatest Australian car race of the century’. Redex glory was gained not by circumnavigating Australia the quickest, but by finishing in one piece: ‘As the officials kept saying, it was not a race but a gruelling test of machinery in the “outback conditions”. That is, we must prove our car reliable. If we arrived a minute early we lost points. Ditto if we arrived a minute late.’
The friction between the Redex officials’ hymn to ‘fair dinkum’ endurance and the wilder, more ruthless larrikin spirit of its competitors hints at Carey’s thematic ambitions. The chequered flag at the end of this rollicking picaresque is nothing less than Australia itself: its landscape, violent racial history and national identity. Nor does Carey exempt himself from sly self-examination: the title nods towards his own extended ‘exile’ from his birthplace in Bacchus Marsh, which is itself the setting for the story’s opening section.
By my reckoning, Carey would have been twelve or thereabouts at the time Irene Bobs and her diminutive husband, Titch, pulled up in Bacchus Marsh accompanied by two young children and dreams of opening their own Ford car dealership. Titch is small but perfectly formed, ‘a lovely little