Parrot and Olivier in America – Peter Carey Book Review

Novel set around 1830 and narrated alternately by Parrot (the son of an English engraver killed for unwittingly participating in a Dartmoor counterfeiting ring) and Olivier (the grandson of a Nobel guillotined in the revolution and whose family cautiously support restoration).

The book was sort of a see saw for me as it follows the travels and lives of the two characters, M Parroquet (a jack of all trades) and Olivier de Garmont ( a royal) as they befriend one another and learn what it is that makes American democracy a force to be reckoned with. Since Olivier’s grandparents have lost their heads to the guillotine, and although his parents have been spared, Olivier’s mother feels it wise to send her son off on a trek to America in the company of Parrot who serves as his servant, confidante and spy.

parrot-and-olivier-in-america-by-peter-carey-8-p.jpgOlivier considers himself a liberal and sets out to discover and explore the prison system in America. While on his journey he discovers his one true love as well as the friendship of a man he treated as a servant.

Parrot finds the shores of America to be welcoming and eventually learns to love this country of opportunity. He becomes the man who is able to adapt while poor Olivier seems to be lost in the relevance of this freedom that Parrot finds so dear.

The two are linked by an eccentric one armed French aristocrat – lover of Olivier’s wife and who rescued Parrot from the police raid on the Dartmoor ring (before strangely leaving him to be transported to Australia and returning for him years later to act as his art dealer selling off his family inheritance).

Sprawling Pynchonesque type book – interesting reflections on French and particularly US society but the book always feels slightly pretentious and contrived and the reader always slightly one step removed from comprehending the narrative.

Parrot.jpgWhat I understood was drawn solely from what we call the symbolic aggregate: that is, the confluence of the secrets, the disturbing flavor of my mother’s milk, my own breathing, the truly horrible and unrelenting lowing of the condemned cattle which, particularly on winter afternoons, at that hour when the servants have once more failed to light the lanterns, distressed me beyond belief.

But hundreds of words have been spent and it is surely time to enter that chateau, rolling quietly on our two wheels between two tall blue doors where, having turned sharply right, we shall be catapulted along the entire length of the long high gallery, traveling so fast that we will be shrieking and will have just sufficient time the right–look quickly–are six high windows, each presenting the unsettling turmoil of the courtyard, and the gates, outside which the peasants and their beasts are constantly dropping straw and fecal matter.

I got exactly 5 pages in before feeling an almost irresistible urge to hurl this book across the room. Now, it may very well be that Carey, in presenting us with Olivier as narrator, surely one of the most pretentious, self-obsessed, pseudo-literary characters to ever appear within the pages of a novel, was trying to poke fun at said character, and we’re meant to get the joke and tag along. But I did not get that impression at all, nor did I get any hope that said character would markedly, or rapidly, change over the course of the novel.

75 pages in, my strong desire to abandon the book because of the pretentious writing was still there:

It was as if Piggott’s brain had exploded through its bony casing and all its greed and argumentative confusion, its secrets and whispers and smugglers’ boats, had burst in smithereens and scattered through the darkening air, landing like stinging wasps upon our arms and faces, and through all of this my captor was transfixed, as if he had seen the assumption of the Virgin Mary in the Devon sky.

Olivier is a spoiled young nobleman who in the first two pages attempts to make an epic metaphor out of an old wooden bicycle found in his attic and whines self-importantly about his mother’s over-protectiveness. Worse, what I heard in that voice was Carey, not Olivier himself.

I also am sick, but it is in no sense the same. I am, as I often declare myself, a wretched beast

I wish I followed my instinct and abandoned the book early on. I feel like a wretched beast myself but the book was a bore! Pretentious bore to make it worse.  Critics have described this as a comedy. I did not find much humour. Quaintness and class manners and relationships were evident throughout the story but for me no real humour. Carey is a talented writer and there was the occasional sentence or phrase that brought a mirthful smile. But the story was too long and convoluted and I had to call on all my powers of focus and will to complete reading the book.

A screech owl cried, despairing, hauntingly lovely. He sighed and walked up to the house alone, poor sausage.


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