At 600 pages (exactly) you either have to be a fast reader or really love Peter Carey to pick up this tome. I fall into the latter camp. I find Carey’s stories both engrossing and unusual. Illywhacker was published in 1985 and was shortlisted for the Booker that same year. It is easy to see why: the novel is full of poetic descriptions and clever observations. As I was reading it however I couldn’t shake the feeling that the novel reminded me of something and it wasn’t until I got to the end and realized that it is very similar, if not in style than in form, to my favourite novel of all time, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. There are several similarities between the two. One Hundred Years of Solitude requires (IMHO) at least three reads before you can begin to grasp the multiple layers of meaning tied up in the characters and events. Illywhacker I suspect is the same. Through the long life of protagonist Herbert Badgery, Carey is trying to make some kind of point. I’m going to blame my lack of English degree for failing to grasp it. One Hundred Years of Solitude is about how history repeats itself and Garcia uses several generations of a family to make the case. The structure of Illywhacker is much the same: although most of the story is taken up with Herbert Badgery’s escapades, three generations of the Badgery family are explored in the 600 pages. The other aspect of Illywhacker that reminded me of One Hundred Years of Solitude was magical realism. For those not familiar with the term, magical realism refers to instances of magic or seemingly impossible events/characteristics that are seen as common place in the context of the book. In Illywhacker, Herbert Badgery is introduced to us in the first page of the novel as being 139 years old. He also has the ability to become invisible and later in the book he tears off the finger of a man, which he keeps in a jar and watches it change form. Herbert Badgery is a known liar (‘illywhacker’ means ‘trickster’) and so the magical realism adds to this sense of trickery that prevails throughout the novel.
Aside from its length, another difficulty I had with Illywhacker is the Australian slang that is peppered throughout. I had to keep asking my British husband to translate for me as much of these words are the same in Britain-speak. This proved to be somewhat annoying when he wasn’t around. Aside from this minor difficulty, I recommend Illywhacker. At no point was I bored and in fact didn’t want to put it down most nights. Other Carey titles I’d recommend: Theft and Jack Maggs.