Parrot and Olivier In America
Parrot and Olivier In America was a nominee for The Booker Prize alongside Room, The Long Song, In A Strange Room, C, and winner The Finkler Question. It was the first Peter Carey novel that I had read despite his previous Booker success with Oscar and Lucinda and True History Of The Kelly Gang.
It got off to such a great start and I thought it was really promising. A shadow hangs over the family life of young Olivier, and he eventually discovers that his parents narrowly escaped execution during The French Revolution. He is a pompous, petulant, sickly boy, with parents who are perpetually on edge. I was really engaged by it, and assumed that this would be a book I would enjoy....
Sadly, this proves not to be the case. The novel alternates point-of-view narratives between Olivier and his future man servant Parrot, and it was from Parrot's first chapter onward that the book began to lose me. Overall, I found the narrative verbose, uninteresting and frustrating, and in part without credibility.
There is some humour to be had when Parrot and Olivier first become a duo on account of their clear hatred of each other. And also when Olivier, due to his mother's continued infantilisation of him finds himself shackled to Parrot once they reach America having hoped to be rid of him. I wouldn't say that this small degree of humour would elevate Parrot and Olivier to the status of "comic novel" not in my eyes anyway.
More frustratingly Parrot and Olivier lacks much at all in the way of plot. Even though he is sent to America largely under a false pretext, it seems unlikely that a character such as Olivier would ever be dispatched to research criminal rehabilitative practice but so we must believe. The two seem to travel about the East Coast of America almost pointlessly.
In some respects Parrot and Olivier is a "look at" what happens when "Old World" collides with "New World" try as he might, Olivier can't reconcile his notions of the way the world should work from the point of view of a French aristocrat, to the way things do work in America. Whilst Parrot thrives, Olivier flounders. It is a comment on how the birth of America as a society served to level social class.
The sad thing is, is that a story of the world through the eyes of aristocrats a generation removed from the French Revolution is a really interesting prospect, but instead, Carey creates an examination of the "master/servant relationship" and social class in general, the likes of which has been done before and better. I felt dreadfully let down by a book which got off to such a great start.
I was recently speaking with someone on Twitter about the Booker Prize, and the level of snobbery around it, I venture to say that Parrot and Olivier in America was nominated not for its virtues but so as not to slight twice winner Peter Carey. It's just not much of a good story in the end, and I wouldn't recommend it 5/10