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Book 128: Parrot and Oliver in America by Peter Carey

Book 128: Parrot and Oliver in America.
Author: Peter Carey, 2010.
Genre: Historical Fiction. Picaresque novel. Early 19th Century.
Other Details: Hardback. 464 pages.

"When my countrymen imagined America, they thought of savages and bears and presidents who would not wear wigs.  Who among them could have conjured Miss Godefroy in all her beauty of form and elegance of mind, her wit, her delicacy, her slender ankles amid those mad red leaves?" - Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Barfleur de Garmont.

Olivier is a young Norman aristocrat, born in France just after the Revolution. Parrot, the son of an itinerant English printer, had wanted to be an artist but in middle age has ended up as a servant.

Olivier's family arranges for him to travel to the New World - ostensibly to study its prisons, but in reality to be out of danger as another revolution threatens. Parrot is sent with him as his protector and secretary but also as a spy for the family. The two men loath each other at first sight. The sickly, snobby Olivier treats Parrot as if he is chattel and Parrot rather resents this treatment and takes pleasure in making Olivier's life miserable. Through many adventures an unlikely friendship develops.

Parrot and Olivier in America was inspired by the life of Alexis de Tocqueville, the young French nobleman who wrote Democracy in America and it evokes the collision between the Old World and the New. Carey alternates narrators, giving Olivier one chapter and Parrot the next.

This was another 2010 Man Booker short-listed title, which I read as part of the Man Booker Shadowing Reading Group. I found it a wonderful reading experience. Its twin narrators played off against each other delightfully and there were plenty of times that I was quite helpless with laughter. Yes, there are serious themes explored, such as the nature of democracy, but Carey never takes this too seriously and in this sense perhaps makes his points all the more effective for that touch of satire.

I loved its playfulness and ingenuity as well as the rich period detail that seemed to come so effortlessly to Carey. My only regret was that because we were reading the short-listed titles on a tight deadline I had to somewhat rush the experience. Still it is likely to be one of the featured books for our library reading group in 2011 and I will certainly welcome the chance to read it again at a more leisurely pace.

On a side note the UK publisher excelled themselves with choosing cover art that perfectly captured the playfulness of the novel. In the end this was my favourite to win the Man Booker and if it had it would have made Peter Carey a three-time winner.

Peter Carey on 'Parrot and Olivier in America' - Man Booker interview.

Image is based on The Last Leap of a Great Man 1815 -French School, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, France.
Tags: historical fiction, literary, satire

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