Presented by Anita Madill to the Calgary Women’s Literary Club
April 13, 2021
Peter Carey, Australian author and twice winner of the Booker Prize, was named an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2012 for “distinguished service to literature as a novelist through international promotion of the Australian identity and as a mentor of emerging writers.“
Carey’s Australia, portrayed with a wide brush of imagination, satire, profanity, humour, and irreverence tells the country’s story from its colonial past to today’s unique Aussie identity. The family Carey Motor company in Bacchus Marsh where he was born in 1943 figures prominently in his writing such as with a retelling of the 1950s Redux Trial motorsport rally taking competitors across 10,000 miles of harsh inhospitable countryside in A Long Way from Home (2017.) Carey’s multigenerational characters are fully developed with wit and empathy through detailed and often humorous descriptions to tell their story of love and loss, often yearning to break away from family bondage viewed as entrapment. The shabby treatment of Indigenous Australians is addressed. Colonial British rule, incompetent and corrupt policing and privileged British immigrants conflict with poor early settlers and the disenfranchised.
Carey’s successful literary career evolved slowly. A year enrolled in chemistry at Monash University, Melbourne, convinced him science was not his calling. He went to work writing copy for an advertising agency peopled by writers and artists who introduced him to books that formed the foundation of his literary career reading “the best that has been written” such as Faulkner, Joyce, and Graham Greene.
After thirteen years working at advertising agencies while writing at night, Carey published a short story collection, The Fat Man in History (1980.) His skill at creating masterful short stories is evident in novels where many a chapter could stand alone as a short story that makes the reader pause to reflect on its elegance. Novel writing proved more elusive with rejection of his first four. Finally, in 1981 at age 38, Carey published Bliss.
His literary career was fully launched with Illywhacker (1985,) short-listed for the Booker Prize, followed three years later with Oscar and Lucinda which won the Booker prize in 1988. It is a historical fiction love story set in mid-1850s England and Australia where science and the Industrial Revolution conflict with fundamentalist religious beliefs and the dawning feminist movement. In 2000 Carey received his second Booker prize with True History of the Kelly Gang where he rewrites Australia’s famous bushranger outlaw’s story with a lyrical Irish voice in letters to his fictional daughter that tell the “True” Ned Kelly story. While not a mystery writer, Carey can surprise with unexpected endings.
Carey’s 2006 novel Theft: A Love Story questioning the value of a piece of art brings us into 2021 where a virtual painting by American artist Beetle recently sold at Christie’s auction for $69.3 million dollars! In the novel, Australian painter Michael “Butcher” Boone is guardian and caretaker of his mentally disabled brother Hugh as they navigate an international art world surrounded by fraudsters, forgers, and dubious evaluators. Butcher, the artist, questions the very nature of art. “How can you know how much to pay for art if you have no bloody idea how much it’s worth.” How much is art worth?
Although Carey decamped to New York in 1990 where he ccontinues to publish novels, short stories and non-fiction while teaching courses at various universities, his characters and themes remain quintessentially Australian.