Oscar and Lucinda (Carey)

Oscar and Lucinda
Peter Carey, 1988
Knopf Doubleday
443 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780679777502

Winner, 1988 Booker Prize

This sweeping, irrepressibly inventive novel, is a romance, but a romance of the sort that could only take place in nineteenth-century Australia. For only on that sprawling continent—a haven for misfits of both the animal and human kingdoms—could a nervous Anglican minister who gambles on the instructions of the Divine become allied with a teenaged heiress who buys a glassworks to help liberate her sex.

Only the prodigious imagination of Peter Carey could implicate Oscar and Lucinda in a narrative of love and commerce, religion and colonialism, that culminates in a half-mad expedition to transport a glass church across the Outback. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—May 7, 1943
Where—Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, Australia
Education—Monash University
Awards—Booker Prize (twice); National Book Council Award;
  Commonealth Writers Prize (twice); Franklin Miles Award
  (thrice); Prix duMeilleur Livre Etranger; Colin Roderick Award
Currently—lives in New York City, New York, USA

"My fictional project has always been the invention or discovery of my own country," the prizewinning Australian author Peter Carey has said. This postcolonial undertaking has sometimes led Carey to wrestle with the great works of English literature: The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith (1994) draws on Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, while Jack Maggs (1997), a version of Dickens's Great Expectations, is told from the perspective of the convict who returns to England from Australia.

But although Carey went to what he calls "a particularly posh" Australian boarding school, he claims he didn't discover literature until he was out of school. He studied chemistry at Monash University for just a year before leaving to work in advertising. There, surrounded by readers and would-be writers, he discovered the great literature of the 20th century, including authors like Joyce, Faulkner and Beckett. "To read Faulkner for the first time was for me like discovering another planet," Carey said in an interview with The Guardian. "The pleasure of that language, the politics of giving voice to the voiceless."

Publishers rejected Carey's first three novels, so he began writing short stories. These, he later said, "felt like the first authentic things I had done." He was still working for an advertising agency when his first collection of short stories appeared in 1973, and he kept the part-time job after moving to an "alternative community" in Queensland. His first published novel, Bliss (1981), won a prestigious Australian literary prize, the Miles Franklin Award. The book is about an advertising executive who has a near-death experience and ends up living in a rural commune.

Carey's later novels ranged farther outside the bounds of his own experience, but he continued to develop his concern with Australian identity. 1988's Oscar and Lucinda, which tells the story of a colonial Australian heiress and her ill-fated love for an English clergyman, won the Booker Prize and helped establish Carey as one of the literary heavyweights of his generation. He won another Booker Prize for True History of the Kelly Gang (2000), the story of a notorious 19th-century outlaw whose legacy still shapes Australia's consciousness.

Though Carey now lives and teaches in New York City, his home country and its past still possess his imagination. ''History,'' he writes, ''is like a bloodstain that keeps on showing on the wall no matter how many new owners take possession, no matter how many times we paint over it.''

• Peter Carey and J. M. Coetzee are the only two-time Booker Prize winners to date.

• Carey caused a stir in the British press when he declined an invitation to meet Queen Elizabeth II. The royal invitation is extended to all winners of the Commonwealth Writers Prize, which Carey received in 1998 for Jack Maggs. He did meet the Queen after he won the award a second time, for True History of the Kelly Gang in 2001.

• Fans of Carey's work know that in 1997, Oscar and Lucinda was made into a critically acclaimed movie starring Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett. But they may not know that Carey wrote the screenplay for the critically panned Wim Wenders film Until the End of the World (1991) as well as the screenplay adaptation of his own novel, Bliss (1991). (From Barnes & Noble.)

Book Reviews
Bursting with informed gusto, freewheeling comedy, pauses of pathos and moments of surreal poetry – swaggering streetboys ‘with their hands boasting against their braces,’ scared cockatoos flying up "like screeching feathers from a burst pillow"– Oscar & Lucinda is a creative explosion of delight at life’s wayward, diverse plentifulness.
Peter Kemp - Sunday Times (London)

Carey is one of the great story-tellers of our time, the kind who make you take the telephone off the hook, forget the television and ignore the doorbell.... He has the rare gift of making the written world more vivid than life. A magnificent book.
Evening Standard (UK)

Luminous and magical, Oscar and Lucinda dances with a shimmer of light and dark as its two noble gamblers play out dreams of God and glass. A spectacular achievement.
The Age (Australia)

It is Thomas Wolfe one is reminded of most when reading Peter Carey...they share that magnificent vitality, that ebullient delight in character, detail and language that turns a novel into an important book.
New York Times Book Review

A kind of rollercoaster ride...The reader emerges...gasping, blinking, reshaped in a hundred ways, conscious that the world is never going to look the same again.
Washington Post

We have a great novelist living on the planet with us, and his name is Peter Carey.
Los Angeles Times

As fine a love story and as fascinating an exploration as any reader could wish...Carey writes as if the world he has created, and his own private life, are at stake.
Chicago Tribune

The stuff of shimmering, transparent fantasy, held together by the struts of 19th-century history and the millions of painstaking details.

If Illywhacker astounded us with its imaginative richness, this latest Carey novel does so again, with a masterly sureness of touched added. It's a story, in a sense the story, of mid-19th century England and Australia, narrated by a man of our time and therefore permeated with modern consciousness. Oscar is a shy, gawky, Oxford-educated Church of England minister with a tortured conscience; Lucinda is a willful, eccentric Australian who sinks her family inheritance into a glass factory; and the basis for the star-crossed love that develops between them is a shared passion for gambling. They meet on the boat to Sydney, Oscar becomes Lucinda's lodger after being defrocked for his "vice" and, finally, leaving a trail of scandal behind them, they construct a glass church in the Outback, their wildest gamble yet. The narrative techniques though which Carey dramatizes the effects of English religious beliefs and social mores upon frontier Australia smack of both Dickens and of Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman; but he doesn't lean upon his sources, he uses them, for his own subtle and controlled purposes. His prose (full of such flashes as "A cormorant broke from the surface, like an improbable idea tearing the membrane between dream and life") is an almost constant source of surprise, and he is clearly in the forefront of that literary brilliance now flowing out of Australia..
Publishers Weekly

As he demonstrated in Bliss (1981) and Illywhacker (1985), Carey is partial to eccentrics. Here, he provides a splendid array of cranks and monomaniacs — with two of them, the title characters, living out an odd and tender love story. Yet theirs is only the central plot in an astonishingly complex literary performance that moves between England and Australia in the 1860's. There are dozens of characters and at least five important storylines, two set in the Old World and three in the New. Mostly, though, this is a leisurely and witty fable about the two great enthusiasms of the 19th century — religion and science. Many great schemes were hatched to try to harmonize the two, and so it is here. Lucinda, an Australian heiress, consults Joseph Paxton, architect of London's Crystal Palace, and then she and Oscar, a clergyman, set out to erect a glass church — in darkest New South Wales. The whole book is also a literary parody. Here, the results are uneven, largely because Carey has made some errant choices. His first targets are Fielding and Sterne. But these were 18th-century writers who expressed the energy of a particular moment: the last gasp of Merrie Olde England, about to be submerged by piety, industrialism, and red plush draperies with ball fringe. Carey is off the mark here. He fares better when he begins to parody Trollope. His style then becomes more appropriate to the material; also less facetious and digressive. Oscar and Lucinda (582 pp.) is sometimes too slow, and its energetic whimsicality can be grating. Against that, though, set writing that is far more often lucid and fine, beautifully drawn characters, and a remarkably clever narrative scheme. A brave and original novel.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
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Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for Oscar and Lucinda:

1. The earliest of the many arresting episodes in this book is the Christmas pudding incident. How does Oscar's delight in this new taste—and the subsequent anger of his father—set the stage for the events of the novel?

2. In relation to Question #1, many see the pudding scene as a retelling of Adam and the forbidden fruit in Genesis. Does that reading make sense to you? How might that interpreta-tion, the fall and expulsion from paradise, play itself out in the remainder of the story?

3. What explains Oscar's conversion from his father's fundamentalist sect to the Anglican Church? Discuss Oscar's hopscotch-like theology. Does God direct where the stone falls...or is it a game of chance? What does Oscar believe? What do you believe?

4. Talk about Oscar's religious beliefs. Is he good...or corrupt? Is he endangering his soul by gambling? Or does the fact that he devotes his winnings to charitable causes justify, or make right, his gambling obsession? What does Oscar believe?

5. In relation to Question #2: Peter Carey invokes 17th-century mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal in this novel. Pascal postulates that belief in God is a necessary bet: if you're right about the existence of God, you win. Even if you're wrong, and there is no God, you still win because you've led a good life. Oscar adheres to Pascal's ideas: belief in God is a gamble. What do you think? Is Oscar (or Pascal) right? Can faith be reduced to a bet—a matter of chance?

6. What kind of characters are Oscar and Lucinda? They're eccentric, of course, but how else might you describe them? What makes them fall in love? (Can you recall the moment when Lucinda suddenly realizes that she might be in love with Oscar?) Why aren't the two honest in their feelings with one another?

7. Discuss the ways Lucinda flouts prevailing societal codes for women of her day?

8. In what way do Oscar and Lucinda refuse to accept their society's racist views of Australia's Aboriginals?

9. Is it a flaw, or a strength, in their characters that neither Oscar nor Lucinda understands or cares (which?) how others view them?

10. Reviewer Aravind Adiga writes that "for Oscar and Lucinda, [gambling is] an expression of their desire for real change and reformation. In that sense, gambling is also an expression of their innocence." Thus the two make their fantastic wager on the glass church. Can you comment on Adiga's observation? Do you think he's right—that their gambling is not only a rebellion but also a way to right the wrongs of rigid societal codes—against Aboriginals, women and innovators? (See the full review in The Second Circle.)

11. What is Lucinda's fascination with glass? (Consider the name Lucinda...just for fun.)

12. Relating to Question #11: glass is obviously (clearly?) symbolic in this work. What does it represent? Carey has said in an interview with BBC World Book Club that glass is perfect and pure but also dangerous—when glass breaks, it cuts. How does that idea connect with a church of made of glass—which is being carried into the wilds of Australia? What might it mean, metaphorically, that Oscar bets he can carry the glass without breaking it?

12. Although it may be overly schematic, consider the metaphor of church and commerce betting against one another for the soul of Australia (or any society). What are the ramifications of such a bet by two powerful institutions— particularly for indigenous people?

13. Oscar comes to regard the trials of his journey through the outback as punishment for his sins. Do you think he's right? Will his suffering redeem him in God's eyes?

14. What affect does the use of shifting perspectives have on your reading of the novel? Did you find the varying points of view illuminating or confusing or interruptive?

13. What was your experience reading this book? Did you find it humorous, sad, funny, intriguing? Talk about Carey's writing style—his descriptive passages; insinuations and indirect sentences; and satirical eye. He has been compared by some to Charles Dickens in his idiosyncratic characters and convoluted plots. Do you see similarities?

14. Were you satisfied or disappointed by the novel's ending? Where were the plot's turning points—where different decisions by either Oscar or Lucinda might have changed the story's outcome?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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