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Compelling romance, epic tale of misadventure, cutting parable of cultural imperialism, Peter Carey’s Oscar & Lucinda is overwhelmingly a story of all-consuming passions. It was the first of Carey's two Booker Prize-winning novels.
The novel traces the extraordinary journey of Oscar Hopkins, a preacher's son who forsakes his fundamentalist Brethren upbringing to become an Anglican minister, and Lucinda Leplastrier, a cocooned but self-reliant heiress he meets on a ship bound for the Antipodes.
Once arrived in Australia, Lucinda sets about overturning hidebound expectation by using her inheritance to buy a glassworks factory and indulging her compulsion to gamble. Oscar's childhood exposure to the forbidden delights of Christmas pudding may have led him on the road to rebellion, but with Lucinda he fully realises his obsession for games of chance. His ultimate folly is to accept a wager that Lucinda sets him, to transport a glass church across the outback. As fantastical as the story may be, Oscar & Lucinda evokes the mid-Victorian world with brilliant precision and allows the reader to take enormous delight in all its absurdities.
Carey delivers a beautifully drawn exposition of how sin, guilt and salvation pursued the Victorians across two hemispheres, while Katherine Streeter's picaresque collage-style illustrations are a perfect realisation of the novel's imaginativeness and psychological depth.
The winner in 1988 was another Australian, Peter Carey, with Oscar and Lucinda. The special reach of the Booker Prize, to novels in English from outside the US, has often drawn attention to fiction that examines Britain's relations with the countries of its former empire. Oscar and Lucinda, set in the nineteenth century, divides the action between England and Australia, and our sympathies between Oscar, an English clergyman and innocent abroad, and Lucinda, an Australian heiress with feminist inclinations. Like the narrator of Edmund Gosse's classic Father and Son, on which Carey wittily draws, Oscar is brought up in Devon, a scion of the dour Plymouth Brethren sect. But, as a clergyman, he escapes to Australia, where he discovers his true character (as an obsessive gambler, apart from anything else) and falls in love with the similarly, and delightfully, contradictory Lucinda. Like the best picaresque fiction, the novel is zestfully episodic, each chapter a surprising new story, and it seems narrated with the same energy that possesses its leading characters.
As taken from, The Booker Effect, by John Mullan.