Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 27.
- Review Date: 2009-11-09
- Reviewer: Staff
The eminently talented Carey (Theft) has the gift of engaging ventriloquism, and having already channeled the voices of Dickens’s Jack Maggs and the Australian folk hero/master thief Ned Kelly, he now inhabits Olivier-Jean-Baptist de Clarel de Barfleur, a fictionalized version of Alexis de Tocqueville, whose noble parents are aghast at his involvement in the events surrounding Napoleon’s return and the reigns of Louis XVIII and Charles X. To remove him from danger, they send him to America, where priggish snob Olivier inspires Carey’s humor during his self-centered adventures in New York, New England, and Philadelphia. Olivier can’t shake his aristocratic disdain of raw-mannered, money-obsessed Americans—until he falls for a Connecticut beauty. More lovable is Parrot, aka John Larrit, who survives Australia’s penal colony only to be pressed into traveling with Olivier as servant and secret spy for Olivier’s mother. Though their relationship begins in mutual hatred, it evolves into affectionate comradeship as they experience the alien social and cultural milieus of the New World. Richly atmospheric, this wonderful novel is picaresque and Dickensian, with humor and insight injected into an accurately rendered period of French and American history. (Apr.)
A picaresque journey through history
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.
Read reviews of other books by Peter Carey