Many many many moons ago, Oscar and Lucinda won What Shall Helen Read Next? and indeed I did start reading it but despite enjoying it for some reason put it down and didn’t pick it up again until last week. Fortunately, and this is testament to the strength of Carey’s writing, it was very easy to get back into, and I have just finished it.
And finished it in a rage! Jenny was not wrong to warn me in her comment to that earlier post. Peter Carey, how could you? If you will go and create intriguing, complex characters with whom the reader falls in love, then you had better have a very good reason for degrading and killing them off, and I refuse to believe that this was necessary to your artistic enterprise here. It’s not that I insist upon happy endings, by no means, but the ending felt rushed, scrappy and suddenly cruel in a novel which until now had been generous, and what happened seemed a betrayal.
The novel chronicles the childhoods, eventual meeting (they do not meet until page 231!) and subsequent parting of the two titular characters, one born in rural Devon, the other in rural Australia, in the nineteenth century. Brought together by a passion for gambling, their great endeavour is to create and ship to the outback a glass church (and they turn this plan into a wager as well), an airy dream made solid, impractical but beautiful, a triumph of belief over practicality. The novel draws together the ways in which life is a game of chance; from religion (‘We must gamble every instant of our allotted span. We must stake everything on the unprovable fact of His existence.’) to love, business to conception, glass-blowing to meeting our future spouse. Gambling gives one the feeling, fleeting, of power and control, of harnessing Fortune to one’s own desires. The end of the novel, in which luck runs out in every way, suggests that this is all a gamble we are destined to lose. We may seem to float along the surface but eventually we will sink. (I found that disappointing.)
Yet still I loved this novel, and I loved it for the characters and for Carey’s writing, which is dry and witty and perfect. He has an amazing talent for juxtaposing elements in a description to bring out their oddness, he studs his prose with precise and unexpected metaphors and he has an ear for the droll in how people speak and behave. I could quote endlessly. Here is how Theophilus, Oscar’s father, sees the boy Oscar: ‘His son was long-necked and delicate. He was light, airy, made from the quills of a bird. He was white and frail. [...] The eyes were so clean and unprotected, like freshly peeled fruit.’ And here is Hugh Stratton’s face: ‘[it] showed, on closer examination, all the fine marks of pain and disappointment that buttered rum could not smooth over’. Here is Theophilus himself: ‘He was a sensualist who believed passionately that he would go to heaven, that heaven outshone any conceivable earthly joy, that it stretched, a silver sheet, across the infinite spaces of eternity.’ And here is Elizabeth, Lucinda’s mother, at her husband’s graveside: ‘But it was anger, not grief, that was her dominant emotion. It lay there like a poacher’s trap ready to snare the unwary.’ I will forgive a lot for writing like this.