Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey #Bookerprize
It begins in Devon with Christmas pudding plucked from a child’s mouth by his beloved though sternly Evengelical father. It ends with a glass church floating on a barge along a river in the Australian outback. What lies between is a marvellously idiosyncratic tale of two misfits: a gangly, nervous clergyman called Oscar Hopkins (nicknamed ‘Odd Bod’) and a frustrated, unconventional heiress called Lucinda Leplastrier.
Oscar and Lucinda, Peter Carey’s Booker prize winning novel from 1988, is a love story in which these two unlikely partners-in-life stumble their way to a relationship. Chance brings them together: a toss of a coin convinces Oscar that God is calling him to be a missionary in New South Wales. On board the ship taking him away from from England he goes to Lucinda’s state-room to hear her confession and discovers their shared passion for gambling. In Lucinda’s cabin the two experience a kind of euphoria, playing poker together for penny stakes. Chance also threatens to drive them apart: to prove his love, Oscar wagers he can transport a glass church built in Lucinda’s glass manufacturing factory through unchartered terrain and erected on her behalf in a remote bush settlement. It’s a foolish proposition – though breathlessly stunning in appearance, a ‘crystal-pure bat-winged structure’, its cast-iron framework and glass sheets weigh more than thirty hundredweight. Readers who by this stage of the book is well aware of Oscar’s ineptitude at most things, wouldn’t trust him with such a mission. But Lucinda is a girl in love so she stakes her fortune on his success. The results are unexpected – having set readers on a breadcrumb trail with an unnamed narrator who declares he is the great-grandson of Oscar, Peter Carey springs a surprise about this lineage in the book’s denouement.
Oscar and Lucinda is an episodic novel related in 111 short chapters that chart Oscar’s and Lucinda’s lives with many digressions that introduce a host of minor, odd yet credible, characters. Peter Carey delineates their physical characteristics and their personalities so magnificently that they linger long in the imagination. Oscar himself is a magnificently-drawn character. Scarecrow thin with a triangular face, frizzy red hair “which grew outwards, horizontal like a windblown tree in an Italianate painting…” and a nervous habit which made him unable to ever sit still. He also has a morbid fear of the sea:
It smelt of death to him. When he thought about this ‘death’, it was not as a single thing you could label with a single word. It was not a discreet entity. It fractured and flew apart, it swarmed like fish, splintered like glass.
This fear provides one of the most telling scenes in the novel where, all other attempts to get him up the gangway having failed, his friends and father have to resort to a cage used to load the animals on board for the voyage to Australia . Oscar is clearly a man trapped by his own nature, a theme repeated towards the end of the novel where he is towed up river inside the church.
The man inside the church waved his hands, gestures which appeared … to be mysterious, even magical, but which, inside the crystal furnace of the church, had the simple function of repelling the large and frightening insects which had become imprisoned there.
They flew against the glass in panic. They had the wrong intelligence to grasp the nature of glass. They based against ‘nothing’ as if they were created only to demonstrate to Oscar Hopkins the limitations of his own understanding, his ignorance of God, and that the walls of hell itself might be made of something like this, unimaginable, contradictory, impossible.
Even more vivid for me was the portrait of Mrs Stratton, the indomitable wife of an Anglican vicar, she loves nothing more than a good theological argument. Introduce a question on the merits of the Nicine Creed versus the Athanasian Creed or the nature of divine grace and she’s off ….
She sought the high ground, then abandoned it. She plunged into ditches and trotted proudly across bright green valleys. She set up her question, then knocked it down – she argued that her own question was incorrect. She set alight to it and watched it burn.
Oscar and Lucinda is a novel where the plot and characters get a bit fantastic at times but one where I couldn’t help but get swept along, eagerly wanting to know what happens next. It’s a novel which could frustrate the hell out of people who prefer novels that go from A to B in a direct line and don’t want too many themes and ideas. But for readers who love oddities and playfulness yet also appreciate a narrative of sensibilities, I hope this will be as much of a joy for them to read as it was for me. This has now gone down as one of my favourites among all the Booker prize winners.
The Book: Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey was published by Faber and Faber in 1988. My paperback edition is from 1997.
The Author: Peter Carey was born in Australia. He worked in advertising for many years while trying to build a career as a novelist. He is one of the few people to win the Man Booker Prize twice – with Oscar and Lucinda and The True History of the Kelly Gang. There is a fascinating interview with him in the Paris Review in which he talks about the frustrations of trying to get his first fiction efforts published and his writing process.
Why I read this book: This was one of the 12 Booker prize winning titles remaining to be read in my Booker Prize project. I moved it to the top of my list on the recommendations of our experts on authors from ANZ: Whispering Gums and ANZlovers .
40 thoughts on “Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey #Bookerprize”
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Thanks for the mention – I’m really glad we encouraged you. Sorry I’ve been a bit slow getting back to you. I have elderly parents in the process of selling their house and moving into a retirement village, while managing some health issues (theirs), and so my time has been rather occupied. Anyhow, my practice now is often to say, today I’ll check Karen’s or Stefanie’s or Guy’s whomever’s blog and read their recent posts rather than read them one at a time as they come out. It feels more efficient!
I don’t do a lot of re-reading of books (besides my beloved Austen) but Oscar and Lucinda, and Cloudstreet, are two I really would like to find time to re-read. I think they are great Aussie novels – in their themes and in their edginess.
So glad you loved this book. It’s one of my favourites. (I find Carey a bit hit and miss.) I see from your comment above you’ve sourced the DVD. I very much loved the film when I saw it at the cinema all those years ago, but that was probably more due to the fact that it stars Ralph Fiennes than whether it was faithful to the book!
We had such a disappointment last night – got lined up to watch the film only to keep getting the message that the format wasn’t compatible. The supplier clearly send the wrong region….
Sounds good. I like a novel which is a page turner and I have a copy on my book shelf. I need to pick it up soon
I would say its an easy read just because of the way Carey masters the narrative
I read this a long time ago, and remember loving it. Your review helps to bring back some of the details I’ve forgotten.
I also remember wanting to watch the movie after reading it, and not being able to find it anywhere at the time. Maybe now (with everything on the internet) it would be easy. Have you seen the movie?
The dvd arrived this morning – it was pretty cheap on Amazon. Will be interesting to see how they compress such a sprawling story…
Let us know!
This sounds like such an original read – I’m definitely intrigued enough by the episodic telling of a story to put it on the wishlist
i didnt know what to expect before I started reading it but the fact it won the Booker suggested to me it would be ‘literary’. Which it was in a sense but written in a very accessible style
Agreed – an absolutely engrossing read, and one of the best Booker winners to date.
Here’s my review:
Just read your review – like you I was hesitant about reading this book based on the (admittedly) limited info I had. But what a revelation….
Thanks for the review. I’ve ordered from the library and look forward to reading it.
Hope you enjoy it as much as I did Rosemary
I loved this novel and remember the glass church so well. The other two Peter Carey novels I read I didn’t like very much at all.
I still have the Kelly Gang to read – that one is not calling out to me strongly though
That was one of the two I read I’m afraid, though other readers liked it I think.
I had the same experience with the Kelly Gang but then heard him read from it (he was appearing with authors about whose works I was keen – Margaret Atwood included) and I went back to the book and felt that it really came alive. His voice brought another dimension to it. (Oscar and Lucinda stimied me, but I was an inexperienced and impatient reader back then. I should give it another go!)
Oscar and Lucinda is one of my favourite books – the imagery and characters have stayed with me over the years. Lovely to revisit through your review.
I have a feeling that it will stay with me too for a long while
I loved this book so much I’ve read it three times and now you’ve made me wonder about returning to it again. Extraordinary characters and story. By far the best of Carey’s novels for me.
Gosh, three times. You must indeed love it….
I should say that once was for a paid assignment but, yes, I do love it!
This sounds like a fascinating, quirky read. I’m not sure I want to pick it up, but I enjoyed hearing about it more because it doesn’t seem like anything I’ve read.
It was indeed a highly unusual book.
I tried reading this, but couldn’t get past the first few chapters. Does it actually get better after a while?
I think it does get better when Oscar goes to Oxford and begins his obsession with gambling
hmm, sounds tempting, especially because of “It’s a novel which could frustrate the hell out of people who prefer novels that go from A to B in a direct line and don’t want too many themes and ideas. But for readers who love oddities and playfulness…”. Thanks!
if you do get to read it you’ll have to let me know whether my assessment is off beam…
Thank you for the mention:) (I’m not sure that I deserve the mantle of ‘expert’ but still, it’s nice!)
I loved this book, I loved its quirky humour and the imagery of that church at the end. It’s a real pleasure to revisit the novel through your review.
11 to go, well done!
Of course you deserve the title!
I did love this book. It does have a magical realist element that I am not certain how I would respond to if I was to return to it. I will hold it treasured in my memory.
well the magical realism part escaped me – I usually think of that as a novel where you get mythical figures.
Wonderful review Karen! I have a real fondness for Oscar and Lucinda. I read it in my teens when I still approached adult novels with a certain amount of trepidation. I remember feeling a little intimidated by the novel’s size, but was determined to put the required legwork in, and that effort was richly rewarded by such vividly drawn and wonderfully eccentric characters and a plot that was as exhilarating as it was preposterous. It made me realise that there was definitely something worthwhile in this reading malarkey!
I held off from reading this for so long, not because of the number of pages, but I didnt think I would be that interested in such a long book about gambling. I was totally unprepared for the eccentricity – normally this would be something that I would find irritating but Carey did a magnificent job. How wonderful that reading this novel gave you the courage to read even more ‘adult’ books
You made me want to re-read this book. I was given this as a present by one of the people I met on a trip to Australia in 1995 and read it back then. Your review made me dig up my copy so I can read it again during a next vacation. Thanks for sharing your reading pleasure!
Its definitely a novel that I think would stand a re-read….