Between the Covers

Parrot and Olivier in America

Peter Carey

Peter Carey seems to be having fun with his writing. One of the things I’ve always enjoyed most about his work is his irreverent sense of the absurd. This was highly at play in Bliss, which is still my favourite of his books, and Oscar and Lucinda. It was less so in others such as The True History of the Kelly Gang and Jack Maggs. Carey is one of only two writers (the other being J.M. Coetzee) to have won the Booker Prize twice.

In Parrot and Olivier in America he brings us a rollicking tale that is more fun than any re-telling is likely to make it sound. The story is a re-imagining of the journey of Alexis de Tocqueville, a French thinker best known for his book Democracy in America. Carey gives the two main characters, Parrot and Olivier, free rein to flaunt their quirks as eccentrically as they wish.

Parrot is an Englishman with a chequered past as a forger and convict. Olivier’s mother sends him to The New World against his will to protect him from danger after the French revolution. The French aristocrat is on a dubious mission to write a report on the American penal system. In a strange turn of events Parrot becomes Olivier’s ‘servant’. In reality, he has been hired by Olivier’s mother to spy on and protect her son.

This mismatched buddy tale makes for a lot of good comedy as we follow their tempestuous loves and misadventures. Parrot is a passionate man who at first despises Olivier. Required to take his dictation, he amends his letters home as he sees fit. The snooty Olivier comes to enjoy Parrot’s company, partly through the effect of democracy on his aristocratic nature. They develop an unlikely friendship; ...he pushed me violently, in full view of our hosts, I knew myself the object of a strange and savage love.

The story unravels in a seemingly random colourful way. Insights about democracy, both its strengths and failings, are gaily scattered here and there. What I mainly liked about this book was the language, the energy and the sense that I was reading a writer at the height of his powers. Parrot and Olivier is confusing, delightful and entertaining. I don’t really know what it was all about, but I enjoyed the ride.

Books reviewed are available at the Book Warehouse in Keen Street, Lismore, and at Lismore Shopping Square.


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