Oscar and Lucinda, by Peter Carey. Published by Vintage International in 1997. Literary Fiction. Booker Prize winner.
Oscar and Lucinda is the best book I've read so far in 2008, and with a mere two and a half months left, it's likely to be the best book I will have read all year.
Winner of the 1988 Booker Prize, it's the story of two misfits who fall in love in nineteenth-century Australia, a wild time of speculation in a wild frontier, when, if Carey is to be believed, Great Britain was in the process sending out missionaries, capitalists and criminals in hopes of establishing its dominance on the island continent. And sometimes it was hard to tell who was who.
But the story starts in the English countryside, in the modest home of Oscar Hopkins and his strict religious father. As a child, Oscar, whose lifelong gambling addiction will wreak havoc on his life for the rest of his life, lets a child's game determine his fate when he changes religious adherence, leaves home and goes to live with an impoverished clergyman and his unorthodox wife. Oscar's loyalty to this erstwhile preacher sets him up for a lifetime on the margins- in school and later on in professional and personal life. Lucinda Leplastrier is also the daughter of an iconoclast- in her case her mother, who teaches her not to think herself limited by her gender, and from whom Lucinda inherits enough money to make her independent and unbeholden. Unfortunately what neither inherits is understanding of how each is judged by others, and how those judgements affect the course of their life.
Eventually the two end up in Australia and meet- Lucinda by now the owner of a glassworks and Oscar a struggling priest. Their love story is tender and sweet and fraught with tension; keenly aware of propriety their behavior follows the letter of propriety if not its spirit, and there's something of Edith Wharton's deluded Lilly Bart in their blindness to how they appear to others, even as appearances fail to reflect the reality of their relationship. They even lie to each other- it's frustrating and alluring at the same time, this narrative of missed connections and missed opportunities. Soon after the story begins it becomes clear that the narrator is no detached third person or authorial voice, but a character with a very personal interest in the outcome of the story, but it's not until almost the very end that the reader can begin to understand what story the narrator is telling, and whose. The story comes to a tense, taut climax when Oscar and Lucinda make a foolhardy gamble which ends up destroying them both.
Carey does an amazing job with Oscar and Lucinda. The writing itself is gorgeous, literary and loaded- more like a nineteenth century love story than one written in the nineteen-eighties. I like that he chose a style that reflected the time and place of the story's setting rather than a more modern style. It's a wonderful throwback to the days when characters were rich and nuanced and novel structure more formal and stylized. It's also highly readable, with an engaging plot and characters you come to know well and care for. Carey evokes his settings beautifully as well; Australia comes across as an anarchic frontier of gamblers and predators, victims and saints. The action keeps going right to last sentence, and I didn't want it to end. I wish every book could be this good!
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.