Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #29: Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey

A highly ambitious book which is almost like three books in one, Oscar and Lucinda nonetheless did not ring any bells for me, despite the high praise it has received from all and sundry. It follows the somewhat twisted love story of Oscar—odd-ball son of a fundamentalist Christian father in mid-nineteenth century England—and Lucinda, orphaned daughter of an early feminist who leaves her teenaged daughter alone in Australia, with nothing but an independent streak and a large fortune to try to survive in a man’s world. The two are destined to meet, but it takes more than half the book to get there, and even then, it’s not clear why they have come together.

Carey’s prose is lush and fit for a Victorian-era setting (even funny, at times), but I came to find it overbearing after a while. The overarching conceit of the novel—using an obsession with gambling as a metaphor for religious faith (Pascal’s Wager?)—was both fascinating and confusing, and I couldn’t tell by the end whether Carey was poking fun at religious fundamentalism, or giving it a gravitas it doesn’t deserve.

The first large chunk of the novel is the best part, I found, detailing Oscar’s strange maturation under the rigid hand of his widowed father, a naturalist who can only express his inner emotions when it comes to describing the bits of life he collects along the Devon shore, but whose deep love for his motherless son is beyond expressing. Just as his father studies patterns in starfish, Oscar studies patterns in everything. When he thinks he has caught his father in a theological lie, all it takes is a pebble landing several times in a distinct pattern for the 16-year-old Oscar to perceive an “act of God” and decide he must abandon his father for a different religious denomination. He flees in the night to the home of the local Anglican vicar and his wife, who attempt to prepare the awkward boy for the priesthood. The impoverished young man ends up at Oxford where he learns to survive, again accidentally, by devising a system of patterns that enable him to bet obsessively—albeit successfully–on the horses. Another “act of God,” presumably. Oscar’s travails are lovingly portrayed, and one comes to feel for this strange and gawky man-child whose sheltered innocence ill-prepares him for the world he is about to enter.

We next find him being carried aboard a ship—he is pathetically phobic about water–headed to New South Wales to take up a vicarage in a (unknown to him) politically-contested arena. On the ship, he crosses paths for the first time with gambling compulsive Lucinda, the lonely single passenger in first class who is lusting over the sounds of card games she overhears among the crew. She is returning from London where her search for a husband proved fruitless, and her seduction of the hapless Oscar into a card game in her cabin is a high point in the story. However, they go their separate paths upon disembarking in Sydney—she to spend her fortune on a glass-works factory that has caught her fancy, and he to attempt to lead a congregation suspicious and, ultimately, hostile to his strangeness.

But they come together for another fateful card game at the vicarage where, caught by two congregation members, Oscar is defrocked and expelled, penniless, into Sydney, where he is unable to fend for himself and is well on his way to dying of starvation when he is ultimately taken in by the eccentric and wealthy Lucinda. Love grows slowly, and in fits and starts, and in this middle section of the book we are exposed to a host of minor characters who help to forge a strange atmosphere of tension but who otherwise I found largely unappealing and somewhat extraneous.  I never found myself liking Lucinda, unfortunately, as she is simultaneously stiff-backed and impetuous, manipulative and yet a total victim of her own uncontrolled emotions. An unhappy combination which leaves Oscar mostly fumbling in the dark.

The last quarter of the book is a curious cross between Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union—dark and tragic, and yet almost slapstick comical. I found it a disconcerting combination in Carey’s hands. Oscar undertakes the transport of Lucinda’s fanciful disaster of a glass church upriver on a bet intended to prove his love to her, but which instead leads to torture, drug addiction, murder, and doom, as well as the loss of Lucinda’s fortune. The speed with which Carey wraps up his story, and dispenses with his hero and heroine left me feeling deflated. Carey throws into his novel the obligatory pc discussion of horrific colonial slaughter of the Australian aborigines (“blacks”), but it is almost incidental to the story even as it is alleged to be a motivating force behind Oscar’s dedication to faith. Again, just not convincing.

Given the fact that this novel won the Booker Award and paeans of praise from critics–not to mention movie rights—I could well be missing something, and so I’d love to hear what other people have to say of this book.

4 thoughts on “Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #29: Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey

  1. I went through a phase when I read a lot of Booker prize winners and read this then. My main memory is that the prose was beautifully written, but I didn’t make an effort to read more Peter Carey. I do remember two scenes: floating down the river in a glass house, and watching the irisdescence in the water. That wasn’t very helpful, was it? I read it about 15 years ago so it’s a little vague. We do use this quote from it to describe our son: It was such an open face you could thank God for its lack of guile at the very moment you harboured anxieties for its safety in the world.

  2. I love the film, which stars Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett. It never fails to make me cry. I bought the book over a decade ago, and have never got round to reading it. I probably should, at some point.

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