Sunday, February 13, 2011

Book #12: Parrot and Olivier in America

Parrot and Olivier in America [Hardcover]Title Parrot and Olivier in America
Author: Peter Carey

I read Parrot and Olivier in America for my Creative Writing Theory class; we were asked to compile a list of five books that employed some kind of technique that we wanted to study further, and I chose books that presented multiple points of view. The novel, a 2010 National Book Award finalist by Australian author Peter Carey (he won for The True History of the Kelly Gang in 2001 and Oscar and Lucinda in 1988) is based on Carey's approximations of Alexis de Tocqueville's experiences in America in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Oliver de Garmont represents de Tocqueville, and Carey paints his first protagonist (can a book have two protagonists if they narrate alternating chapters of the narrative? I guess that's what I'd call them) as a coddled conceited brat, spirited out of France against his will because his mother worries that if he stays, he'll face the same threats of execution that befell the rest of her family a generation earlier. He's sent to America in order to study the prison system, but his family finances the expedition and his title of French Commissioner sounds fancy, but doesn't mean much.

John "Parrot" Larrit is de Garmont's manservant, scribe, and general protector, assigned by Maman and her friends to take care of the fils and make sure he doesn't get into too much trouble (like marrying an American girl). Larrit, an Englishman about 20 years older than de Garmont, initially balks at working with the spoiled younger man, who treats him badly. But once the pair (and Larrit's common-law wife and her mother) arrive in America, they realize that the conventions that bound them in the Old World don't apply in America anymore: while de Garmont falls in love with a commoner and starts to soften, Larrit, a servant all his adult life, finds happiness and fortune.

I listened to the unabridged audiobook of Parrot and Olivier, so it was easy for me to tell who was speaking (even though one person narrated both parts-- and did a fantastic job), but I think that Carey differentiates the voices of each character well enough that it wouldn't be too difficult to tell them apart anyway. Their difference in social class is evident in their diction-- Olivier speaks formally and Larrit uses lots of slang. However, the audience empathizes with both characters-- Olivier because he's been raised in a sterile environment, kept as a possession by his parents, and Larrit because he was first orphaned and then mistreated by his guardian. Carey does a beautiful job moving the novel forward chronologically while filling in the backstory through extended flashbacks. At the end of the novel, we're happy that both men seem to be on the road to a successful American life, but also may feel surprised by which man has a richer life in his adopted home.

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