Peter Carey’s third novel, and his second to receive a Booker nomination, Oscar and Lucinda enjoys a weighty reputation and seems to inspire a large degree of attachment among many who read it. And deservedly so. This is an excellent work of fiction and (with the caveat that I haven’t yet read four of its competitors) is deserving of the award.
Oscar Hopkins is the son of a preacher and a compulsive gambler. Gangly and strange, he is an uncommon romantic lead character. His adventures take him from his home in the West Country to London via Oxford, and then on to Australia where he wishes to do missionary work. Lucinda Leplastrier is a wealthy young Australian, also a gambler, who has a passion for (even an obsession with) glass, and buys a glass factory in Sydney. The two meet some way into the novel on a ship bound for Australia. Partly to impress Lucinda and partly to see through a bet made between them, Oscar embarks on a plan to move a large glass church from Sydney to Bellingen (about 250 miles as the crow flies, but longer realistically).
There is a faintly absurd edge to the tale and it is frequently comic. Much of the action is dictated by chance, but this never feels forced or as if Carey is introducing some deus ex machina. Instead, characters are seen responding to unusual situations in ways that feel natural. The writing is superb and Carey has an excellent ear for a clear turn of phrase. Individual sentences feel laden with suggestion even while that being described is easily recognisable and understood. Carey sustains this impression by frequently returning to dominant images, particularly those of glass and water, which carry with them their own symbolic luggage to be exploited. And at the heart of the book is a touching and original love story. An excellent work.