‘Oscar & Lucinda’ by Peter Carey

imgresFirst published more than 20 years ago, Oscar and Lucinda has firmly established itself as a contemporary classic and is regarded as one of the most important of Australian novels.

It holds a unique position in the world of literature having been awarded, in 1988, the Booker Prize and Miles Franklin Award – the only book to have won both. Author Peter Carey was jettisoned into the international literary arena. His reputation was further enhanced when he picked up a second Booker Prize in 2001 for True History of the Kelly Gang, making Carey one of only three authors to have received the prize twice (an honour he shares with J M Coetzee and Hilary Mantel).

Described by The Financial Times as the most original and rewarding novel to appear in the English language for many years, Oscar and Lucinda is a complex, gently comic love story and historical powerhouse of a novel. An imaginative tour de force, it introduced two of the most memorable characters in Oscar Hopkins and Lucinda Leplastrier and a love story of denial and misunderstood scandal but which takes more than half the 500-page novel to introduce the two to each other.

Oscar Hopkins

Young Oscar is, by contemporary definition, a geek. Bullied and pitied by the townsfolk of the small 19th century Devon village of Hennacombe, the physically uncoordinated Oscar renounces the strict Plymouth Brethren faith of his father.

Instead, the precocious child turns to the Church of England and the poverty-stricken Anglican pastor, who reluctantly supports him before sending him off to Oriel College at Oxford University. It is here Oscar meets Wardley-Fish and the ways of gentlemen in 19th century England, including the most sinful of all pastimes – gambling.

Obsessive by nature, always the outsider, Oscar works out a system on the horses to finance his years at university. But aware of his sin, he is strict about his winnings – they are never to be more than his needs. As a result, Oscar is able to justify his gambling, in his own mind, as God’s will.

Guilt and remorse, however, continue to follow Oscar, to the point he believes his only option is to challenge himself and his faith, signing up to travel by boat to distant New South Wales and the Australian colonies, a task made more arduous by his stultifying hydrophobia.

Lucinda Leplastrier

An orphan at 16, Lucinda is a reluctant heiress made wealthy by the unwished-for subdivision of her parents’ Parramatta farmland to the west of Sydney. Sent to live in the city by her guardian, she purchases, on a whim, a glass works.

Like Oscar, Lucinda too is an outsider, a forthright, strong-willed young woman with an unruly physical appearance not at one with the evolving Sydney society. Scandal after scandal follows as she unintentionally compromises friend and Randwick vicar, the Reverend Hasset, and discovers the joys of card-playing, which she plays with a passion until the early hours of the morning.

Destined to meet, Oscar and Lucinda’s two paths finally cross on board the Leviathan as the lonely first-class passenger returning from a fact-finding trip to England (and hopefully a husband) finds solace and company round the card-table on the second-class decks.

Oscar and Lucinda

Attempting to provide the minutiae of narrative and plot development of Oscar and Lucinda is to do the novel a disservice. It is a sweeping historical work, as much at home with Oscar’s philosophical question of faith or discourse on phosphorescence aboard the Leviathan as it is with guarded conversations between the two main protagonists around everyday subjects or a discussion about Lucinda’s failure to keep her maids for any length of time.

The two are bound by their loneliness, their willingness to take risk and, over time, their shared love of gambling. Oscar has his faith, but it is not an unquestioning one and it’s certainly flexible. Lucinda, more pragmatic, has her floundering business, made the more difficult for it being owned by a woman in 19th century Australia.

The novel is certainly not a love story in the more traditional sense. As their feelings for each other creep up, so they remain unexpressed amid confusion and ill-read signals. As the two enter into an agreement on their final and outrageous folly – the transporting of a glass church to Reverend Hasset and the (literally) godforsaken Boat Harbour, 400 miles to the north across unchartered territory, Oscar sees it as the opportunity to prove his love for Lucinda.

He need never have played such an extreme hand, but those signals remained ill-read. Totally unprepared for the arduous trek across untamed bushland, events unfold to ensure the ultimate gamble results in a wholly unpredictable outcome.

Oscar and Lucinda is a glorious tale, epic in scope, intimate in detail. From the religious fervour of small town Devon to the irreligious Boat Harbour on the banks of the River Bellinger, from the mores of English society to that of emerging 19th century Australia, from the poverty of working-class life to the ill-treatment of the local indigenous population, Oscar and Lucinda is compassionate, wry and a darned fine work of fiction.

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