Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey

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

16 comments on “Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey

  1. Ariadne
    October 19, 2007

    I enjoyed this very much, too, though it’s a while since I’ve read it. A modern classic.

  2. Nik
    October 19, 2007

    Looking good over here in your new home, VL.


  3. Rob
    October 20, 2007

    This is another book that I should read again one day. I read a few of his, and this one seemed to stand out from the others.

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This entry was posted on October 19, 2007 by in Entries by Jackie, Fiction: historical, Fiction: literary and tagged , .



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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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