This January has been Australian Literature Month, hosted by Kim at Reading Matters, and the interweb has been alive with Aussie Lit.
Before I give my thoughts on the book I read for the month, I’d like to recall my very first experience of Australian books…
It was the early 1970s I think, and my Dad acquired a little volume by a chap called Afferbeck Lauder. It was called Let’s Stalk Strine and was about Australian language and culture, but written phonetically in an Aussie accent, and thus was very funny indeed. I remember reading it rather perplexedly, then as realisation dawned falling about with laughter. Afferbeck Lauder (Alphabetical Order) was, of course, a pen-name – for a chap from the Sydney Morning Herald who wrote a Strine column, and half a dozen or so Strine books in the mid 1960s. Sadly they’re all out of print, and none available for under a tenner anywhere, else I’d have been able to see if it’s as funny as I remember, (unless you still have yours Dad?). Enough of detours though, and on to the book I read…
Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey
This book was in my TBR for so long, I got rid of it. It was the original hardback too (left), although I don’t think it was a first edition. Then a few years later, I had a yen to read it and bought another paperback copy (right, dislike that cover though), and put it in the TBR again, where it has stayed until I was given the nudge to read it, spurred on by Lizzy. We had a vague plan to do a shared post, but in the end were too busy to get it together! So here are my thoughts…
My first reaction to the book was it’s so dense! There is so much packed into O&L’s 500+ pages, that it reads like a book that is far longer. That’s not a bad thing though in a really good novel, and this is one. The density is in the dazzling detail which has a Dickensian quality to it, making it a book to be savoured and not rushed. I read it more slowly than I usually do taking nearly the full month, reading several short chapters, of which it has 111, most mornings.
The story was not at all what I expected. The playing cards on the front of the original cover would have you think that O&L are an Australian Bonnie & Clyde conning their way through the bush, however, the later cover with its church and praying hands is ultimately much closer to the heart of the story. I’m not going to outline the plot in detail as Lizzy’s post captures its essence admirably.
Needless to say it’s epic in scope. We alternate between Oscar and Lucinda’s stories in the first half of the book. Both are parentless as young adults, Oscar through estrangement and Lucinda’s mother died leaving her a small fortune. Despite having developed a flair for winning on the horse, Oscar decides to emigrate to Australia on a whim, and must overcome his phobia of crossing water for the long voyage. Lucinda meanwhile buys a glassworks and, while trying to integrate into Sydney society, gets addicted to playing cards for money.
So it’s chapter 46 before they are on the same page of the book, and several chapters later before they say a word to each other on board the ocean liner taking Oscar to Oz.
There were two doors. She chose the right-hand one. Ahead of her was a red-headed clergyman sitting on a plush red settee. It was the second-class promenade. She felt herself ‘nabbed’, ‘caught in the act’. She thought it undignified to turn back. She held up her head and straightened her shoulders. She came forward. She walked directly towards him. She introduced herself to him, and when he said his name, she did not hold it.
‘I am in the habit’, she said, ‘of making a confession.’
‘Quite,’ he said.
‘Perhaps this is not a practice you approve of.’
‘No, no,’ he said, ‘of course not.’
‘I wonder then, she blurted, ‘if you might not oblige me at a time convenient to you.’ And then, not quite knowing what she had done, and certainly not why, she fled to those regions of the ship where Oscar dare not follow.
There’s an instant attraction, but neither are capable of acting upon it. Hidebound by society rules, theirs is a relationship that will be two steps forward, and mostly two steps back, as misunderstandings and the inability to speak their minds always get in the way, until Oscar gets his chance, but what will he do?
This is a slow-burning book that, until the last fifty or so pages, plots a leisurely course through the lives of its protagonists. I can imagine getting very frustrated with both of them if I had read it faster – I still wanted to knock their heads together. Having been on their own since they were teenagers, with few friends of their own age, Oscar and Lucinda are innocents in the ways of romance, and it was this hope that they would actually realise their love that kept me mesmerised from start to finish.
My first experience of Peter Carey was a good one – I hope to have many more. (9/10)
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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey