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Book Review: Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey

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No matter what Peter Carey writes, there’s always a playful extravagance in his work, coupled with pleasurable, fast paced plot and linguistic gorgeousness.  As with Illywacker, Parrot and Olivier in America has a little bit of chaos in the structure, mimicking the multiple shades of truth and reliability. The nature of "truth" is a recurring theme for Carey, and although the setting of Parrot and Olivier in America is as grand as any that Carey has used, it is the focus on human frailty that makes the story intimate and endearing.

There are two narrative voices taking alternative chapters.  Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Barfleur de Garmont is the first narrator. As the lengthy name suggests, he’s a wealthy French aristocrat, born at the end of the French Revolution. It’s not an ideal time to be an aristocrat, and his own self-image is shaped by his parent’s sufferings and the events that happen outside his cloistered walls.  He is educated in the law before being sent to safety in America to write about the American prison system. Olivier is modeled loosely on Alexis de Tocqueville, author of the the classic textbook on the US democratic system De la démocratie en Amérique (Democracy in America), but is an entirely fictional character, enriched through his connection to the other narrator Parrot, aka John Larrit, a down to earth Englishman from Devonshire.

Parrot worked under his father’s tutelage as a printer, at a point in history which wasn't ideal for printers, especially forgers. When Parrot’s father and everyone else in his house is arrested and taken away in chains, he escapes into the arms of a large French nobleman, the Marquis de Tilbot, camped in unlikely squalor on Dartmoor. Carey shows his narrative mastery as Parrot’s remembers his first meeting with the man who becomes his conduit to Olivier:

"For Christ’s sake—the secret forgers were all bursting from the roof, up through the tiles, alive and dying all at once, such screams. The Parrot Larrit was a frightened boy, running, encouraged by his da and the other printers chained together. Up the hill I went, a musket ball whizzing past me like a hornet on the chase, and into the very patch of woods that had been spared the barley axe, jumping across the smoking body of a man who I, in my terror, decided was asleep. (113)"

Ultimately, it is the Marquis who sends Parrot on a mission to look after the younger Olivier during his time in America. The delicate balance between revulsion and friendship in Parrot and Olivier’s relationship drives the rest of the story forward, as we get alternative perspectives from each of the two protagonists. Both Parrot and Olivier's developing maturity through love, jealousy, hatred, and fear, is richly presented in a series of Dickensian scenes that are the funnier because of the contrast between the two different perspectives:

"His lordship, on the other hand, was very perky and I observed how adoringly Miss Godefroy looked at him. She had snagged an aristocrat, and she was pleased about it. He was talking on and on, as always, leaning forward, cocking his head, mispronouncing every English word he knew. Miss Godefroy thought him perfect. (312)"

Not a single character is out of place or poorly drawn, from Olivier’s early carer Bébé, to Parrot’s sultry French mistress Mathilde, herself a talented painter.  Other characters like Watson, the burnt but brilliant engraver – Parrot’s first teacher and link with the past — or the lovely but flawed Miss Godefroy are compelling enough to be protagonists themselves. There is depth in the portrait of each of these characters, and their machinations and interactions with the protagonists. In the clash of the two narrators – their opposing cultures and the way in which their fortunes shift and rearrange throughout the story – there is tremendous growth and tenderness. Their roles change and shift as they move between protector and spy, teacher and student. Each setting too, is detailed and beautifully depicted, from the old France and old England of Oliver and Parrot’s respective childhoods, to the “new” streets of New York in the early 19th Century where most of the story takes place.

Parrot and Olivier in America is full of Carey’s humanism, coupled with an examination of the compelling power of Art that featured strongly in My Life As a Fake, coupled with deep seated explorations of identity, truth, friendship, and democracy. Above all, this is a wonderful, ribald, and satisfyingly powerful tale that takes the reader through many journeys. It is as fun to read as it is lyrically beautiful and as thought-provoking as it is lighthearted.

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About Magdalena Ball

Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Sublime Planet, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.