parrot and olivier in america – peter carey

Parrot & Olivier in America

Considering how tired I’ve been with work recently, this book took me a lot longer to finish than I was expecting – but I had whole days when I read nothing at all!

Actually, if I was totally consumed by the book, I reckon I would have finished it quicker, but I wasn’t.  It was enjoyable enough, but not at all compelling.

The story is set in the early-mid 18oo’s, told by two narrators – Olivier, a seemingly-frail French aristocrat whose family has survived the 1793 Revolution; and Parrot (John Larrit – so nicknamed for his shock of red hair) from Devon.

The main bulk of the story starts when Parrot is assigned to be Olivier’s manservant / secretary that his mother had sent him on to America.  Supposedly researching prison reform, but really to keep him away from the troubles in france and thus protect him.

Parrot is much older than Olivier, and upon leaving France (where he has fallen under the wing  of a dubious French aristocrat for many years), he deigns to take his long-term French mistress and her mother to America with him.  She is an artist, but would be deemed a peasant in french society.

However, the book is about how democracy in America affects the lower and upper classes from other nations.  The lower classes finding that there is the ability to ‘make their name’ and build their fortune from nothing in new ways, and the aristocracy (in this case Olivier) finding that they are expected to treat their servants differently, and that their standing has much less impact.

The book seemed pretty well written, but the narrative was just, well, too realistic almost.  I felt like I couldn’t trust what either Parrot or Olivier’s versions of events were.  ‘Facts’ seemed to be changed throughout the story, and the order of events occasionally felt rather random, so I kept feeling lost as to whether I was reading a part that had happened in the past, or was happening currently within the story.

Based on this book, I woulnd’t pick up another Carey, it was pretty hard-going, and I didn’t feel there was a satisfactory outcome.  And I didn’t particularly feel anything for any of the characters – I think I’ve said before, that to invest any emotion into a story, you must feel something for the characters, whether it be empathy, compassion or hatred!

I am slightly bemused as to why this had been shortlisted for last year’s Booker Prize!


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