Sunday, 5 September 2010

Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey

Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey (Random House 2010)

Parrot is the son of a journeyman printer and apprentice engraver whose master, Mr Watkins, appears to die in a fire set by the owner of a publishing house on the discovery by local officials that the particular skills of Watkins have been used in producing forged currency, a crime punishable by death. On the run he meets a one-armed Frenchman, the enigmatic and mysterious Tilbot, in whose services he travels first to Australia, then to France and finally to America to provide assistance to Olivier.

Olivier is essentially a re-imagining of the life of Alexis de Tocqueville, the son of a noble family who managed to avoid the guillotine during the reign of terror. On finding himself snubbed as the Bourbons return to the throne following the July Revolution, Olivier's father fears for his son's safety and so with Tilbot's help Olivier's mother arranges for him to travel to America ostensibly on behalf of the French government to undertake a survey of the American Penal system but what he writes is a book on the people and institutions of the budding democracy.

If any of this sounds complicated then I can assure you that this is very much a simplification of what is a sometimes irritatingly convoluted book. The narrative goes back and forwards between the two main protagonist  as the old world invades the new and there are some very telling judgements made on the culture, political institutions and the nature and social etiquette of the people of the new democracy and as an Englishman living in Canada it has made think a lot about the differences of living in a nation that still has some notions of aristocratic entitlement as compared with a nation when essentially anyone can reach the heights that come with public office, especially when one has money to grease the wheels.

Peter Carey I think had a great theme for his novel and there is in evidence some first rate research and one can almost see the 18th century America through de Tocqueville's ever widening eyes however he didn't really seem to have thought up a story to match his vision and as the story meanders its way with little or no conclusion at the end one can't help but feel that the plot was made up on the fly, so to speak. There are some great set-pieces but they don't do enough to rescue the book from its faults. I don't think Parrot and Olivier in America deserves to be short-listed for the Booker and it is definitely not strong enough to win.

Great idea but the plot let it down