Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey (1988) 511 p.
The first of Carey’s novels I read was True History of the Kelly Gang, which, at the time, I classified as “good but not great,” only to find that it grew on me the more I thought about it afterwards. His first novel, Bliss, I didn’t find particularly compelling, so I’ve skipped over his second novel, Illywhacker, even though I own it. Instead we come to his third book, Oscar and Lucinda, which won him his first Booker Prize and could safely be considered his break-out novel.
An unconventional love story, Oscar and Lucinda is a historical novel set in the mid-19th century, dealing with the lives of Australian heiress Lucinda Leprastier and English reverend Oscar Hopkins. The novel tracks both of their lives from childhood, as they develop the gambling addiction which eventually brings them together, and turns into a bizarre quest to transport a pre-fabricated glass church across four hundred kilometres of Australian bush to a remote coastal town.
Unlike True History of the Kelly Gang, and even unlike Bliss, Oscar and Lucinda has a tone to it which one might describe as “comic.” The characters and locales are simultaneously realistic yet exaggerated. Carey slips in and out of different character’s heads, often in the same paragraph, and less important characters are often portrayed through the lens of some particular social quirk or obsession which colours their reaction towards either Oscar or Lucinda. This reminded me, more than anything else, of the writing style of Terry Pratchett – characters in the 19th century style who range from vain to petty to frightened to Machiavellian. This isn’t a bad thing, but it’s certainly very unusual, and can make things difficult to follow. Nevertheless, Carey paints an evocative picture of colonial Sydney – filthy, parochial, sub-tropical, and avaricious, yet the jewel in Australia’s crown and a city unlike anywhere else in the world – which worked quite well for me as I happened to be visiting Sydney while reading the first half.
The other odd thing about Oscar and Lucinda is that, after a relatively light and comical 450 pages – pages dealing with death and disgrace and misfortune, certainly, but still pages narrated in a humourously whimsical manner – the final 50 pages suddenly plunge into dark and terrifying territory indeed. The very final chapter could fairly be described as a horrific nightmare. I mean this in the best possible way; it came completely out of the left field for me, and was stunning and powerful. Perhaps if I’d been sharper I would have noticed the clues scattered along the way. (I did notice a few of them, but misinterpreted them.) The novel begins strangely, narrated by Oscar’s great-granddaughter, who then fades into near-irrelevance. If it had begun more conventionally, or if I’d been paying closer attention, I would have realised Oscar’s fate was spelt out in the novel’s very first paragraph.
Oscar and Lucinda is a good book. It’s a very odd book, a very unique book, because Peter Carey is really a one-of-a-kind writer. That doesn’t necessarily mean I always enjoy the way he writes – there are more than a few places in Oscar and Lucinda where I was bored – but viewed as a whole, this novel is bold, unique and excellent. It contains a number of scenes that will stick in my memory, and the ending is jaw-dropping. Perhaps, in retrospect, Oscar and Lucinda will grow on me as True History of the Kelly Gang did.