There 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, winner of the Booker Prize twice, 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 1950s 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 sees 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.
Their navigator, Willie, is an intriguing young man, only 27 years old, a school teacher who loves geography, a failure in love, and 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 story teller. 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.