Peter Kemp

Peter Kemp, The Sunday Times, January 24, 2010

Fizzing with the fictional panache that has twice won him the Booker prize, Peter Carey’s new novel is wide-roving
even by his standards. As his previous books have shown, misfits on the move enthral him: a con man careering around Australia’s vast landmass, convicts and Victorian eccentrics shipbound for New South Wales, expatriates roaming the Far East, fugitives from New York to Queensland’s rainforest.

Parrot and Olivier in America opens up his most expansive fictional journeying yet. Alternating between two narrative voices – the dandified tones of Olivier de Garmont, a French aristocrat, and the plebeian commentary of his servant (nicknamed Parrot because of his gifts as a mimic) – the book begins in post-revolutionary France, embarks on a twomonth voyage from Le Havre to New York, travels around the raw settlements and rudimentary cities of 1830s America and loops back, through Parrot’s memories, to England’s West Country in the 1790s, a convict ship to Australia and life in one of its penal colonies.

Carey’s earlier novels have featured lookalikes of historical figures ranging from Charles Dickens to Ned Kelly. Here, Olivier is modelled on Alexis de Tocqueville, the political writer of illustrious Norman descent who crossed the Atlantic in his twenties to inspect America and its pioneering society.

Vividly conjuring up the traumatised milieu of France after the revolution where surviving aristos are regrouping around the restored king at the Tuileries, Carey watches their tentative efforts to reassert ancien régime supremacy. Brocade and tapestry, SÈvres porcelain and candelabra-lit dinners in escutcheoned rooms re-emerge in a wrecked Paris not long retrieved from the shadow of the guillotine. Edgy menace still hangs in the air, though. And after the alarm of the 1830 July revolution, Olivier’s parents dispatch him to America, ostensibly to study its prison system, in reality to put him out of harm’s way should another reign of terror erupt. Like de Tocqueville, who was shipped to America in similar circumstances, Olivier, while dutifully touring penitentiaries, soon decides to broaden his survey into a panoramic look at the New World’s democratic experiment.

At the novel’s core is a smaller-scale experiment in democracy: the growth, against the odds, of esteem and affection between two men from drastically different backgrounds. Initially bristling with suspicion of each other and often comically at daggers drawn, Olivier and Parrot learn, through lively twists of plot, to recognise each other’s worth, and eventually achieve a trustful friendship.

Olivier’s family have borne the brunt of mob ferocity (his grandfather died amid the “filthy squirt and gush” of blood from the guillotine; his parents just escaped it). Parrot’s father, a printer executed after being haplessly implicated in banknote forgery, fell victim to autocratic savagery (whose repercussions sent his son out to the prison continent in the antipodes where he “saw human meat whipped off a living back” and from which he has returned scarred in more ways than one).

The lively to and fro between this master and servant who mature into equals, provides a running commentary on the pros and cons of democracy. Parrot, as you’d expect, relishes America’s egalitarianism. Less predictably, Olivier becomes an enthusiast, too, then develops doubts, predicting cultural debasement and the rise of ignoramuses to political prominence. Attitudes to democracy shift around as restlessly as Carey’s characters. But, as usual, it isn’t ideas that animate his imagination. What most stirs his creativity is the look of people, places and periods. Brilliantly pictorial, his prose catches bodily movement with sketch-like deftness: offered hush money, a man “swiftly folded himself around the bribe”. Appropriately in a novel whose characters include three accomplished artists, scenes are painted with bravura – from the flaming foliage of the New England autumn to New York’s chilly waterfront with its lumbering carts, hats blown off in the wind, sailors drunk before lunch and “poor Irish girls, clad only in silk and gooseflesh…their complexions turned the colour of a plover’s egg”.

Some of Carey’s vignettes (black-clad Quaker worthies “furled like umbrellas in the low, sad mist”) have a marvellously quirky inventiveness reminiscent of Dickens. The similarity extends into a zest for extravagantly wayward story lines, physical and psychological freakishness, ebullient comedy and (underscored by Carey’s awareness of his native Australia’s past) sharp consciousness of cruelty towards the underprivileged and cast out. All are generously on display in this exhilarating tour de force.

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