Friday, 10 April 2009

Oscar and Lucinda - Peter Carey

Read: May 2008

It is reported that Oscar and Lucinda was awarded the 1988 Booker after the judges deliberated for only thirty minutes. Whether or not that is the case, there is no doubt that Peter Carey’s vast story of undeclared, slow burning love is one of the most popular Booker winners of all time. And you can see why. It is one of those novels that I can imagine every writer wishes they could have written. Just ask Angela Carter who is quoted on the back admitting that it fills her with “wild, savage envy.” And, though not in any way a celebrated author, I am of the same opinion.

Oscar and Lucinda is impressively vast, impeccably pitched, subtle and well written. The story is that of the relationship between a young, awkward, bashful, clergyman, Oscar Hopkins, and an Australian heiress with money and independence and not much else, Lucinda Leplastrier. Despite being born half the world apart; one in a quiet Devon village, the other on a farm in the Australian outback, the two are made for each other. Both are inveterate gamblers, “one obsessive, the other compulsive – incapable of winning at the game of love.” When Oscar decides to seek self mortifying missionary work in Australia his sea journey coincides with Lucinda’s return from a glass factory tour and they discover, hidden in each other, the vice of gambling.

But neither is schooled in the international language of love, they are young and uncertain, unable to express themselves and mired in self doubt. And when their addictions lead them to social ostracism, they each gamble everything on a grandiose monument to their love, and each of their lives is transformed forever.

It is the 1860’s, Australia is being violently colonised. The industrial revolution is in full swing. From sleepy Devon to an Oxford seminary, glass factories to backstreet gambling holes, grand sea journeys to treks through uncharted Aboriginal land, Oscar and Lucinda takes us on a journey of exploration into a newly emerging world, complete with its opportunity and brutality.

Reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro in the understatement of the events, Oscar and Lucinda is a fabulously detailed epic novel. Where most authors would stick with one thematic hook to build the novel around, Carey finds three: religion, glass and gambling. Not a natural combination, but one which works superbly. They each support each other, repeatedly extending the metaphors and ideas of the novel as a whole. For example, the complexity of glass: it is both strong and fragile, transparent and yet distorting, practical and magical. And religion which purports to be unquestionable and yet is mired in uncertainty, fragile belief and discord.

Oscar and Lucinda
is a novel of rarely rivalled richness, which feels so close to life you can almost touch it. Populated with rounded, characters and underpinned with enthralling themes, this is a book to completely immerse yourself in.

However, despite all this, Oscar and Lucinda does have its limitations. It is dense and capricious, like a squirming eel it is almost impossible to pin down. Each of the title characters is quiet, emotionally withdrawn and unremarkable – to the point whereby even the most remarkable events seem somehow slightly bland. The book is also populated with many characters who walk in and out, just as you feel that you are getting into the lives and characters of Oscar or Lucinda, along comes another character and the narrative moves away from them again. The intimacy is repeatedly broken, the tension is built up only by the tragedy of their unspoken love. And at times this gets incredibly tiresome.

Furthermore, and this is more of a personal problem, I believe that just as everyone has their own individual writing style, so too do they have their own inner reading cadence, some lyrical phrasings which please them, and others which don’t. For some reason, Salman Rushdie’s prose delights me, whereas the flow of sentences here does not rhythmically work inside my head. I find Peter Carey’s short sentences troublesome, almost caustic, and because of this is could not fall in love with this book.

Nonetheless, Oscar and Lucinda is a veritable feast of thematic exuberance and character fallibility. It is a novel to delight in, one that almost everyone who reads it seems to fall in love with.

7 out of 10

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