Book Look - Parrot and Olivier in America, by Peter Carey

Olivier is the aristocratic son of a French royalist family that finds himself sent to America by his parents to protect him from civil unrest. Parrot is a Dickensian orphan who floats through life on the tides of good and ill fortune. Together they forge a bond that morphs over time from initial disdain to grudging coexistence to, eventually, friendship. Along the way, Carey sweeps us through Paris during the tumultuous years following the French revolution, past the windswept moors and bustling ports of England, before finally plopping us in U.S. colonies during the first years of our country’s history.

Admit it took a long time for me to warm up to this odd book, which tries to fuse whimsical Dickensian narrative and social satire but doesn't quite succeed at either. The preliminary chapters, in which we are introduced to the fussy infant Oliver and the scrappy orphan Parrot, tend to plod; not because Carry doesn’t know what he’s doing, but because we don’t know what Carry’s doing … not for many, many, many chapters later. You’ll have to take it on faith that the characters and incidents that occur in these chapters turn out to be relevant, eventually. Nor is the social/political satire very convincing ... perhaps because he sees a little too much of his native Australia in this tale of another scrappy, upstart nation?

It’s when our two “odd couple” protagonists end up in harness in the U.S., ostensibly conducting a French government-commissioned study on the American prison system, that the story started to suck me in: partly because I found Carey's satiric depiction of Americans entertaining, partly because this is when the interaction between the characters finally began to get interesting, partly because this is when all that content from the earlier chapters finally becomes relevant and you begin to appreciate the way in which Carey is assembling all the disparate pieces into a whole.

I gather from the blurbs on the book cover that I’m not the only reader to draw parallels between Carey and Dickens, another author who knew how to pull together eclectic characters and disparate subplots into a narrative whole. Also Dickensian: the way Carey uses dialect and slang to create distinctive voices for each of his characters. This can make portions of the text hard reading – especially since Carey doesn’t spoonfeed us the plot, but relies on us to extract it from the narrative. That having been said, Carey is no Dickens: I had a hard time liking either of the protagonists or caring what happened to them, a flaw Dickens never would have tolerated.

Overall, I thought the book generally worth the time it took to read. However, I'm not sure I'd read another Carey on the strength of this one ... at least not so long as there Dickensian tales actually written by Dickens still in my "to read" pile.

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