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Reading Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda was a transforming experience for me. In reading thousands of books, I had never connected with characters to that degree & I became obsessed with the story to an annoying, almost unbalanced, degree. In all seriousness, I want to marry Oscar. The luminous 1997 film starring Ralph Fiennes & Cate Blanchett was a perfect interpretation of the book, even the author agrees with me.
The novel concerns Oscar Hopkins, who grew up in a strict, austere home in Victorian times & discovers gambling while at Oxford studying to be an Anglican priest. Even though he gives all of his winnings to charity, the overwhelming guilt drives him to volunteer as a missionary to Australia where he hopes to be removed from temptation. He discovers it in another form when he meets Lucinda on board the ship taking them to Sydney. Lucinda Leplastrier is a young woman who has inherited much wealth after the death of her farming parents & has bought the Prince Rupert glass factory. She is returning from a business trip to England, and accidentally meets Oscar, who is dealing with his phobia of water in the midst of an ocean voyage. When he arrives at her cabin to hear her confession, they discover a mutual love of gambling & each other, though the latter is almost hidden in their awkward, complex interactions. As the story progresses in Sydney, they wager whether Oscar can deliver a glass church through the unmapped Australian wilderness by a certain date, a journey fraught with danger & meanings.
Water, glass and faith are all woven throughout the story as touchstones & symbols with endless depths. All of the characters, no matter how minor, are drawn with fine, detailed strokes; the title characters in silverpoint. Oscar is odd, bumbling, fearful, yet hiding a nervous courage & inner moral character full of passion. Lucinda is a feminist, defiant, outspoken & ambitious in a reckless sort of way. They are both unconventional & thus perfectly balance each other, one wishes desperately that they find happiness.
Some of the themes had been explored by Carey in earlier books, most notably Illywhacker, O&L rises above them by dint of a crystal clear purity in both character development & storyline. Though his characters are always misfits, there are times they get a bit Vonnegutian in their strangeness. And the bitterness that pervades Bliss or Theft is wholly absent in this novel, though the characters suffer more. There is a great sadness instead, despair and hope at the same time. A strong sense that everyone is at the mercy of Fate creates an underlying tension throughout the plot. Peter Carey takes his readers right to the edge of the cliff & has the courage to shove them over. This gives his work an unforgettable quality which is most notable in my favorite book. The best summation of my response to Oscar and Lucinda is found in another of Carey’s novels: “It created in me the most exquisite melancholy, a kind of yearning, a profound unhappiness, an erotic kind of grief.”
Vintage 1988 433 pp. ISBN 0-679-77750-4