Fiction Parrot and Olivier

Published on February 1st, 2010


Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey

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Blurb: Olivier is a French aristocrat, the traumatised child of survivors of the Revolution. Parrot the son of an itinerant printer who always wanted to be an artist but has ended up a servant. Born on different sides of history, their lives will be brought together by their travels in America. When Olivier sets sail for the New World, ostensibly to study its prisons but in reality to save his neck from one more revolution – Parrot is sent with him, as spy, protector, foe and foil. As the narrative shifts between the perspectives of Parrot and Olivier, and their picaresque travels together and apart – in love and politics, prisons and the world of art – Peter Carey explores the adventure of American democracy, in theory and in practice. (Faber & Faber)

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The Economist

Parrot and Olivier has all the quirky qualities that we have come to expect from Peter Carey: a winding narrative, a mass of vivid historical detail, and some very lively writing… a wonderful tribute to Tocqueville’s great book.

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Leo Robson, The New Statesman

…his recent run of books has been astonishing. Now Parrot and Olivier in America, a comic adventure that functions with equal brilliance as a novel of ideas, can be added to a hit parade of extraordinary sharpness and vigour… Carey has access to both high-flown and vernacular language, and the new novel routinely achieves a kind of battered Shakespearean splendour.

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Peter Kemp, The Sunday Times

Some of Carey’s vignettes have a marvellously quirky inventiveness reminiscent of Dickens. The similarity extends into a zest for extravagantly wayward story lines, physical and psychological freakishness, ebullient comedy and (underscored by Carey’s awareness of his native Australia’s past) sharp consciousness of cruelty towards the underprivileged and cast out. All are generously on display in this exhilarating tour de force.

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Jay Parini, The Literary Review

Parrot and Olivier ranks among [Carey's] best, on a par with Illywhacker or True History of the Kelly Gang… Carey, like any good novelist writing in the historical mode, holds a mirror to the past in order to discern the lineaments of the present.

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Robert Epstein, The Independent on Sunday

Peter Carey is a lyrebird of stunning prowess, a mimic par excellence… [A] dashing novel

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Lucy Daniel, The Daily Telegraph

Aside from its intellectual themes, Carey’s novel is about two characters, and the wary affection that eventually grows between them. When a broken Olivier seeks succour at Parrot’s Harlem homestead, he surveys Parrot’s wife’s paintings and still pronounces them awful. Carey’s refusal to simplify is admirable, and if that entails a certain amount of puzzlement, it also offers a great deal of pleasure.

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Tom Shippey, The Times Literary Supplement

This is a puzzling novel, in the end as at the start. It has a number of loose ends… Parrot and Olivier in America is such a literary work, even fuller than its predecessors of allusion, contrast and comic contradiction, that there is always more to find: the more you bring to it, the more rewarding its insinuations, its unpredictable switches between satire, serious reflection, and plain fun.

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Russell Celyn Jones, The Times

The omniscient style is now pretty much systemic with Carey, but for my taste the lofty narrative lacks intimacy at times, as exemplified by de Garmont at his most arch; like a Henry James in reverse. Within the covers is a complex discussion of the philosophy of democracy, and yet Olivier and Parrot is most strikingly beautiful at its most elemental.

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Ludovic Hunter-Tilney, The Financial Times

Drawing on themes running through his fiction, it is the most sustained and enjoyable attempt yet by Australia’s leading living novelist to write about his adopted American homeland… The story sags in the latter stages, yet Carey’s high-wire prose style – “my gorgeous creamy-skinned raven-haired plump-armed nestling rutting smiling creature” is Parrot’s rapturous description of his artist-lover – never loses its tautness.

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Ursula K Le Guin, The Guardian

While enjoying Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America, I found myself wondering from time to time what it was about. I finished it with unabated enjoyment, still wondering… Are there hidden significances? I don’t know. It’s a dazzling, entertaining novel. Should one ask for more?

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Andrew Taylor, The Independent

The whole is rather less than the sum of its parts. Perhaps there’s a little too much concept here. The fictional elements take second place to the ideas. The characters are brightly coloured and grotesquely lifelike puppets defined by their thoughts as much as feelings, and it’s hard to engage with them other than intellectually. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, of course, and this is a book full of good things. But Carey has written better.

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Thomas Mallon, The New York Times

Sentence for sentence, Carey’s writing remains matchlessly robust. Sailors cling “to the rigging like soft fruit in a storm,” while inside a dark parlor old ladies sit “wetting their hairy chins with stout.” But as the book’s bravura paragraphs grow into chapters, the author seems unable to decide whether it’s “Democracy in America” or “Martin Chuzzlewit” or, once more, “Great Expectations” he’d like to inflate and transform. The local units of invention rarely disappoint, but if Tocqueville were to survey the book’s overall imaginative structure, he might recommend a stronger sort of federalism to the enormous literary talent presiding here.

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Thomas Jones, The Observer

By Carey’s standards, this is a remarkably mellow book; he used to treat his characters far more ruthlessly… And yet this newfound generosity brings with it a kind of complacency. Carey’s view of America (where he moved from his native Australia in the early 1990s) is in its way as utopian as the Dickensian view of Australia that he so devastatingly dismantled in Oscar and Lucinda or Jack Maggs. As long as his literary imagination is, like Parrot, settled in America, Carey seems unlikely to repeat the virtuosity of True History of the Kelly Gang.

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John Preston, The Sunday Telegraph

Like Carey’s 2001 Man Booker Prize-winner, True History of the Kelly Gang, Parrot and Olivier in America has an epic historical sweep to it. Yet for all the novel’s virtues, the book can’t muster the same emotional impact as its predecessor. In part, this is due to the nature of the story. However, there are other factors, too. The friendship between the two men comes to feel increasingly contrived… Similarly, the respective love stories never entirely convince.

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Hugh Brogan, The Spectator

Carey’s vision of post-Napoleonic France seems stereotyped. His America is much better, but his account of it is in direct competition, not only with Tocqueville, but with writers such as Frances Trollope and Michel Chevalier. In short, he falls between several stools. Nor does the brilliance of his writing entirely compensate for his plot, the incidents of which are too contrived to be believable. What a shame.

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