Parrot and Olivier in America — Peter Carey

Parrot and Olivier in America was Peter Carey’s fourth shortlisted work at the Booker, and the second of those not to win. It markets itself as a story loosely based on the life of Alexis de Tocqueville (Olivier), but requires no real knowledge of either de Tocqueville or American history in order to follow it. Parrot is Olivier’s guardian, his secretary, and an artist of more skill than success, and the book’s primary focus is on relationships: that between Parrot and Olivier; their relationships with their lovers; and the relationships people hold with countries and their heritage. Thrown into the middle of this is a fictionalised account of the creation of The Birds of America, although I still can’t work out why.

The book is engaging and entertaining, and Carey is very good at presenting the class divisions between his two protagonists, as well as providing comic moments that are touching without seeming absurd. It’s a good story and perfectly well written. But having read Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang which are excellent, I was disappointed. Parrot and Olivier in America just isn’t up to their standard: some moments felt contrived, there was little that seemed to really be driving the characters, and ultimately I didn’t much care what happened to Parrot or Olivier. The book seemed to be lacking a point.

Whether it was right for Carey to lose in 2010 is a different questions: having now read half of that shortlist, I would say Carey is the best of the bunch so far. But Jacobson seemed to have a sense of purpose with The Finkler Question, and maybe that was enough to tip the scales.

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