Author: Peter Carey
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
Press Year: 2009
Peter Carey writing a book about exploring the new world makes complete sense because, lets face it, the man writes place as though he were Christopher Columbus himself. It’s one of those delicious pairings, like when KitKat met caramel, that once there you wonder how the hell no one came up with the idea earlier.
I’m glad he didn’t though because Parrot and Olivier in America is a book with all the growth and maturity of someone able to risk it all and write what he wants after a buxom career.
The novel chronicles exactly what it tells you. John Larritt, called Parrot because of his ability for uncanny impersonations, is an artist turned not-quite servent. He is persuaded by his not-quite-master to accompany spoilt, French Revolution baby, the noble Olivier de Garmont to America. Olivier- spoilt and arrogant- goes to the new world under the pretence of writing about the American penal system for the French monarchy, but it’s more to protect him from growing unrest toward the artistocracy in his home country.
Like all of Carey’s novels, there is a strain of historical truth in Parrot and Olivier in America. This time the basis of the idea is essentially a historic re-telling of Alexis de Tocqueville’s journey to America to write Democracy in America. This becomes a major theme in the book, not unexpectantly, as Carey’s novel tend to focus on an underclass of some kind. Other Carey signatures feature prominently too: contrasting dual perspectives between the two major characters, and a complex but strong-willed female lover, this time in the form of Parrot’s mistress and fellow painter- the firey Mathilde.
The book is set in America and Carey, for quite some time now, been an expat over there himself but it’s almost as if he just can’t stay away from home. He manages to include a sneaky little storyline about Australia as Parrot takes a wander through the Botany Bay of yesteryear.
You can’t fault Carey. For someone so bitterly underrated his writing makes lesser novels not only pale in comparison, but faint, wheeze and keel over. While some authors will sit there and slave to give birth to some pittiful little book that wreaks of struggle, Carey effortlessly pulls you through his 600 page, hardcover monster with little more than an encouraging slap on the back. Parrot and Olivier in America is an ambitious undertaking but one that Carey achieves with complete and utter ease.