I love it when you start reading a book that is a small version of hell to get through in the beginning, but then you persevere until eventually the pearly gates open and an amazing ending is in sight. This is precisely what happened with Peter Carey’s Oscar & Lucinda.
I was struggling so much with the book though, that I thought it would be a great idea to watch the film adaptation, which stars Cate Blanchett and Ralph Fiennes. This however, only encouraged me to carry on with the book, but had the upside of helping me visualise the characters as I read. So while I may have been drawing comparisons between the two, it was to my advantage to have watched the film before I got too far into the book. If you are planning on reading the book though, I would definitely recommend giving the film a look also. Blanchett and Fiennes are truly amazing and certainly did the characters justice. The entire film is very true to the book itself, aside from one major difference (this difference being the ending) but overall is every bit as good as the book upon which it is based.
Anyway, back to the novel. Oscar & Lucinda follows the fortunes (and misfortunes) of Oscar Hopkins and Lucinda Leplastrier and is set partially in mother England and partially in the growing colony of New South Wales, Australia in the mid to late 1800’s. Fate, gambling and the sea bring these two people together in time, setting in motion a chain of events that will change not only their own lives, but also in some small way, the lives of virtually everyone they associate with. We first meet Oscar in England as a young boy. He is the timid son of a stern and highly religious father and is so uncertain about his path in life, that he eventually renounces his father’s religious beliefs and turns Anglican. With the assistance of a helpful benefactor, he is set down the road of becoming a priest. His one sin in a life of goodness however, is his obsessiveness with gambling in order to make money to give to the poor. So even in sin, he is the epitomy of goodness. Lucinda on the other hand, was born and raised in New South Wales and is the heiress to a fortune far greater than many others had experienced at that time, but she feels herself undeserving. She is of the firm belief that her money has come at the detriment of the native people of the area and so she too turns to gambling. But hers is a compulsion to be rid of her money, eventually leading to the purchase of the glass works in Darling Harbour, which turn out to be the biggest gamble of all.
It is easy to see why this book has been a winner of the prestigious Booker Prize for fiction (amongst other illustrious awards). Usually when I pick up a book which has received praise from nearly every corner of the literary community, I set my expectations high and am frequently left disappointed. It was not the case this time though. Peter Carey has done a wonderful job of setting the scene in the early days of the colony of New South Wales. Oscar and Lucinda are intriguingly complex characters and so beautifully quirky that it’s hard not to become attached to them. Even the supporting characters that have little to no role in the novel are so full of life, that you could be forgiven for thinking that Carey was describing the guy that lives down the street from you. And for those familiar with Sydney and the surrounding areas, it’s really great reading this book and imagining all the places mentioned as they once were, as opposed to how they are now.
RATING – 8 out of 10. It was a bit slow at some points and I felt that there were some things that weren’t entirely necessary, but I completely fell in love with the story and the characters and was able to overlook any parts that I thought were not needed.
WHO SHOULD READ IT – Lovers of historical history and in particular those who like seeing what Australia was like before it became what it is today.
WHO YOU’LL LOVE – It’s difficult to overlook Mr Hopkins. He is so wonderfully odd and unusual, while still being all that we envision to be good in the world. How can you not love a person like that?
FAVOURITE QUOTE – ”It would chill you, Marian, to walk down a street in Parramatta. All this is my great achievement as a parent, that I have produced a proud square peg in the full knowledge that all around, to the edges of the ocean there are nothing but round holes”. The thoughts of Elizabeth Leplastrier (Lucinda’s mother), on her daughter.