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 .
Around this time last year I went on record with this statement about my goals for 2016.
2016 is going to be all about completion. ….
I deliberately avoided making definitive reading plans knowing how useless I proved to be in past years in sticking to them. Instead I opted for something more general thinking it would give me more flexibility and increase the chances of success.
Guess how I did on this goal?
You got it in one. It was a complete fail. Not a near miss or even a creditable effort. Not only didn’t I finish one of those three projects I barely made any inroads into the Classics Club list, reading just one ‘classic’ in the entire year (Mrs Dalloway) which leaves me with 22 still to read to achieve the goal of 50 classics by August 2017. It’s unlikely to happen….
I fared slightly better with my intention of reading more books by authors outside the western canon – 4 new countries were ‘visited’ in 2016 which takes my total to 35. Not a stellar performance but at least its going in the right direction.
Star billing goes to the Booker Prize project however where I managed to read a further 7 of the winning titles. Just 15 more to go now …
So why didn’t I achieve any part of this plan?
a) I was too ambitious or
b) I spread my efforts too broadly and would have done better being more focused or
c) I picked the wrong goals or
d) I am really bad at sticking to plans and get easily distracted.
Judging by some articles I’ve read recently about how to be effective at setting and achieving goals the issue was really a combination of b) and d). I got distracted by the long and short lists for the 2016 Booker prize so instead of reading previous winners I became too engrossed in who might win next. I also got carried away with Net Galley. Some lessons here that are influencing my 2017 goals. What are they you wonder? I shall leave you in suspense for a few more days….
This week’s Top Ten topic, hosted by The Broke and The Bookish, is the ten best books of 2016. By which I take it they mean the books I read in 2016 that I enjoyed the most. I’ve pontificated about this for a few weeks now but can delay no longer. So here is my list. I was surprised to see how many are Booker prize related.
- Top spot goes to Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing for her sweeping saga of life in China during the Cultural Revolution and its effects on three musicians. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and in my ever so humble opinion should have been the winner. But the judges disagreed….sigh.
- The Many by Wyl Menmuir: a debut novel which was mesmerising even if I didn’t fully understand it. Contained some disturbing ideas about the long term effectof pollution on the sea and fishing stock . It was longlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize
- The North Water by Ian McGuire: Another 2016 Booker contender, this was a rollicking if grim historical adventure set on a whaling ship.
- Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink: the only non fiction book to make it onto my top 10, this was a thought-provoking detailed examination of the effects of Hurricane Katrina on a hospital in New Orleans and the life/death decisions confronting the medical staff.
- Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothomb: my first experience of this Belgian-born author. After reading this terrific novella about a young girl’s humiliation when she goes to work for a Japanese company and comes bang up against cultural rules and expectations.
- Bel Canto by Ann Patchett: Another author that I read for the first time in 2016 and what an experience. The plot focuses on a group of people who go to a concert in a Latin American country and end up being taken hostage. Although there is plenty of tension and drama, the real interest for me was in how the different hostages (who include a world famous opera singer, her accompanist and a devoted fan) all respond to music.
- Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami: it’s taken me many years to get around to reading Murakami. It was delightful atmospheric novel about love and loss.
- The Gathering by Anne Enright: another Booker title but this time a winner – from 2007. Irish authors often tend to focus on doom and gloom and this one is no exception since it revolves around a sister’s reaction to her brother’s suicide. It’s grim in a sense but Enright portrays the inner life of her protagonist so well I just had to keep reading.
- The Narrow Road to the Deep North: by Richard Flanagan: Winner of the Booker Prize in 2014, this is a riveting story account of an Australian doctor who is haunted by a love affair with his uncle’s wife and his experience as a prisoner of war in Thailand.
- My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout: yet another 2016 Booker contender though I read this long before the Booker judges made their initial selection. It’s the first time I read anything by Strout and on the strength of this tale about a mother/daughter relationship I’ll be keen to read some of her earlier work.
It’s that ‘turning over a new leaf’, ‘making a fresh start’ time of the year. You can hardly open a newspaper at the moment without finding an article about how to lose weight, take up a new hobby, get yourself super fit. Have you noticed too how the publishing houses are heavily promoting self help books right now? Book bloggers are also, it seems, giving a lot of thought to the twelve months ahead – I’ve lost track of the number of posts I’ve seen in the last few weeks talking about reading plans for 2015 and new challenges.
I’m keeping my own plans very simple this year. As simple as they can possibly get.
1. I am resolved to enjoy the reading experience……..
Lest you think I have completely lost the plot, let me explain. When I first started blogging three years ago I got carried away with all the opportunities for challenges and readalongs. I ended up doing far too many and consequently hardly made progress with any of them. It also began to feel that I was reading just to tick a box instead of what I really wanted to read. I gradually weaned myself away and last year I cut them out all together, focusing instead on my own projects. That worked well. Ok I didn’t read as many titles from my Booker Prize winners list as I expected, or from the classics club list. And I never did get all the way along the Equator. In the last couple of days I’ve come to appreciate how little it really matters whether I read 5 or 15 from those lists. I’m not in a race, not even with myself. And so I’ve decided to keep pootling along with those projects this year. in case you’re wondering, pootling is a word we use a lot in our family. I love the sound of that word. It means to move along at a leisurely pace, a bit like Mole and Ratty in Wind in the Willows.
2. I am resolved to make space on my bookshelves
I joined the TBR Challenge that Adam runs at Roof Beam Reader. There are many similar challenges around but I chose this one because it’s simple and very manageable. Just 12 books from the TBR pile in a year. Even I can do that one.
That’s it. I told you it was simple didn’t I?
The only other thing I’ll be doing this year is trying to get back to the level of fitness I had two years ago when I was going to the gym four times a week. Last year I was lucky if I made it twice a week. Fortunately there are some like-minded bookish people in the blogosphere who in the form of #Fitreaders. Although this is called a challenge I see it more as a online support network. Whether it’s walking, dancing, golf, etc etc, you decide individually on your fitness goal and just share your progress. I bought a Fitbit device last year but it’s been gathering dust for a while. Time to re-activate it. My initial target is a very modest 5,000 steps per day on 5 days of the week. I’ll see how that goes before planning the next phase.
What are your plans for 2015?
A weekly round up of miscellaneous bookish news you may have missed.
Two long- awaited author returns
Her first (and most recent book) took sixteen years to write. Her second has taken nineteen years. New Zealand author Keri Hulme won the 1985 Booker Prize with The Bone People, but there’s been nothing from her since. She recently told a literary festival in Aukland that she is going to publish her second novel in September this year. I wonder if she’ll have as much trouble getting this one published as she did with The Bone People and whether she’ll similarly resist recommendations to edit her work. In case you’ve never read her, here is my review of her novel.
Something that was announced a few months ago, but which I completely missed, was the news that Kazuo Ishiguro is to publish his first novel in a decade. The Buried Giant, due out in March 2015 is about ‘lost memories, love, revenge and war’. I was hoping it would be something in the vein of Remains of the Day which I love, but it’s apparently more akin to the dystopian future that he used in his last novel Never Let Me Go.
Amazon versus the publishers
In 2011 it was estimated almost one in every four books in the US was bought via Amazon. Last year, Forbes magazine said the figure had increased to one in two (50% in other words). We readers can’t, it seems, get enough of the online giant. But while Amazon may be good for consumers, giving easy access and fast delivery of hundreds of thousands of books, publishers are not so enamoured. In recent years we’ve heard mutterings from publishers about Amazon’s business model which required them to pay to have their books stocked and shipped and to offer ever-increasing discounts to Amazon. But most have stayed silent, fearing that they could effectively be blocked from the site entirely.
One of them however has recently broken the veil of silence. Hattchet Book Group, one of the leading US-based publishing groups, was in dispute over the level of discount Amazon was demanding. Then the publisher discovered 5,000 of its titles had ‘disappeared’ from the on-line site. Users can see the book but effectively can’t buy it because it’s marked out of stock even though it is widely available in many other outlets. Hattchet has gone public with a series of statements on their website about the dispute. House of SpeakEasy blog has just published a good commentary piece on the issue.
I know many bloggers have ‘banned’ Amazon because they don’t like their business model and the effect it’s had on independent booksellers and the publishing industry in general. I’ve long used it myself by default because I hadn’t found anything as quick or efficient. But a recent experience has shown that there definitely is a strong alternative at least for people in the UK, via Waterstones. I first used them when I wanted a copy of Great Expectations as a mother’s day gift – the Amazon price was an astounding £16. I found it at just under £10 on the Waterstones site. Delivery was just as fast as Amazon and nicely packaged. So I tried them again recently when I wanted some books for gifts (I’m still restricting my own purchases) and again they came up trumps on the delivery. So I’m now sold on them – they may be more expensive than Amazon though not by much, and I can earn points each time I buy which gives me discounts and offers in the future. So I’m switching my allegiance.
The New Yorker has a good article about the progress of the Amazon phenomena and some of the issues raised about its business methods.
Time to Drool
Buying a book online may be convenient but I do miss the experience of walking into a real shop and browsing. The big chains do a fine job of organising the books efficiently and they’ve upped their game in recent years by adding coffee shops, sofas and squishy armchairs. But they don’t come anywhere near the ambiance of the independents. Buzzfeed has just published a set of photos of independent stores that is certain to get you salivating. I just wish more of these were within my grasp. I could get to the Book on the Barge in London, and next time I go to Brussels I’ll have to go looking for Cook and Book but I can’t see me getting to Buenos Aires to see the theatre converted into a bookstore or to Sao Paulo to see the dragon-festooned Livraria Cultura.
There are 17 shops featured by BuzzFeed but I bet there are many more gems out there. Have any of you found something special on your travels?
An odd marketing concept
My current trainers (known as sneakers in USA) are losing their bounce so I’m in the market for a new pair. New Balance is one of the few brands that make a very narrow fitting so I was getting excited to hear they are about to launch a new author-inspired range. They are meant to “pay tribute to some of the greatest American novels ever written” according to SneakerNews. My imagination immediately began working on which author’s face or inspiring quote I’d choose that would help me get through a gym session. The first collection out next month is called “Bespoke Authors,” the second will be “Distinct Authors Collection” out in August the third the “Connoisseur Authors Collection,” will go for $150 and be released in September.
Disappointment kicked in quickly however when I saw advance pictures of the new models. Was I missing some incredibly clever allusion? There seemed no obvious connection to either authors or books. Maybe there was something embedded on the insole or the outer sole? Were there some quotes running around the inside? Sadly it seems not. There are no direct connections between authors and each pair of shoes. Instead, as New Balance’s head of lifestyle department (a rather grandiose job title) told the Boston Globe, the linkage really only comes from “color combinations, key touches of detail, and fabrics”. That’s a statement which has me totally perplexed — I could see them picking blue for Hemingway given his association with the coastal location of Key West; maybe white and black to symbolise the slavery/racial tension of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, or red earth tones for Grapes of Wrath. But the advance pictures show a yellow tone shoe and a grey/blue one. Any clues which novel or novelist those are meant to represent. Seems like an idea dreamed up in a creative brainstorm session aided by a few too many margaritas.
It’s an astonishing achievement to win a prize like the Man Booker prize once in a lifetime. To win it twice is remarkable. To win it for two books out of a trilogy is truly extraordinary.
“you wait twenty years for a Booker prize and then two come along at once.”
And then immediately paid tribute to those who had not won and thanked the people who had believed in her and helped her to bring Bring up the Bodies to print.
She knew the stakes were staked against her – only two other authors have ever won the Booker prize twice and none of them had such a short interlude between each prize. Her final comment shows that she knows the stakes only get higher now:
“I have to go away and write the third part of the trilogy.”
The judges decision shows once again why I should never take to the Black Jack tables in Vegas. I always pick the wrong one – I kept saying for the last few months that as superb as I thought Bring Up the Bodies is, I couldn’t see the judges giving it to her just because it was the second in the series and was about the same character. Just shows how wrong I could be. But for once how the right the Booker judges got it this year.
I should also thank them for enabling me to tick another Booker prize winner of my list to be read!!