May 2010

A picaresque journey through history

By Peter Carey
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To say that Parrot and Olivier in America, Peter Carey’s newest novel, is prodigiously researched is perhaps to miss the point. For while Carey is known for his at once wry and reverent take on historical fiction, and while his scrupulous study and vast knowledge of the 19th century is apparent on every page, it is rather the Booker Prize winner’s thoroughly unquantifiable ability to inhabit his setting that so distinguishes him as a writer.

Based on the life of Alexis de Tocqueville, Parrot and Olivier in America tells the story of Olivier-Jean-Baptist de Clarel de Barfleur, a lovably priggish French noble who, after narrowly escaping the Revolution’s wrath, is shipped off to America under the pretext of studying the New World’s progressive prison system. Also sent, as Olivier’s servant and spy, is an Englishman known simply as Parrot—the son of a printer-turned-forger and survivor of an Australian penal colony. Almost immediately the two clash, and each feels himself quite unfortunate to be in the company of the other. Try as they might, the two foils just cannot seem to shake each other, and what begins as animosity gradually grows into a loving and harmonious camaraderie.

Alternating between Olivier and Parrot’s distinct viewpoints and voices, Carey takes readers on a picaresque and galloping romp through bygone times with delightfully antiquated dialogue and prose. The plot itself is too wonderfully convoluted to recount here, but suffice it to say there is an one-armed Marquis, a hysterical artist mistress and her dour mother and no shortage of colorful schemers along the way. The electricity and pace is exhilarating, rather than exhausting, and ultimately Carey’s enthusiasm and energy become our own.

As much as Parrot and Olivier in America is a wickedly brilliant novel of events, it is also a tender paean to American democracy. After all, if insurmountable class is allegedly what separates our heroes to begin with, it is their eventual shared belief in egalitarianism that allows them the greatest gift Carey has to offer: friendship.

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