I first came across this book in an English bookshop in The Hague.
I was perhaps 22, on my first (and to date, only) visit to Holland to visit a Dutch friend. I’d been abroad for about two days, but I got the traveller’s delight at seeing a friendly bookshop in one’s mother tongue, crammed with second hand volumes, spines hugging and piled rafter-high.
The volume of Oscar and Lucinda (long lost) was white, or it had been once. It had two uninspiring faces on the cover which to my memory recall the two dour faces of Grant Wood’s American Gothic, but from an internet trawl is more likely to be the image above. A corner was folded, and there were wrinkles down the spine. I’d never heard of Peter Carey, and the blurb was far from promising. I don’t know why I choose it.
But the angel of books was hovering that day, because, as you probably know, Oscar and Lucinda is a gem, a genius, a beauty. I rarely re-read books, but for some months, my muddy recollection of this odd novel has been stirring until I had to return.
It is a rare thing indeed: a novel at once acutely observed, finely detailed, psychologically astute – and farcical, mad, and hilarious. It was quite a shock to discover how little I remembered. An iconic incident that I though took up most of the book in fact only happens in its closing pages.
The novel tells the story of two star-crossed gambling addicts in the mid-nineteenth century: two individuals who having nothing in common apart from this prediliction and an inability to be an accepted part of the establishment. Oscar is strange, lanky, tuftily ginger, a pious ex-Plymouth Brethren lacking self awareness and common sense in equal measure. Lucinda is spiky, selfish, but on a little understood rageing mission to take herself down and out. They start the book thousands of miles apart and are drawn together by the twin agents of chance and God which intertwine all too closely at the philosophical heart of the book. Is one the other? Is belief in one wrong while the other right? Thrown together, passionate but complete in their misunderstanding of the other to the end, sparks fly. Sparks of literary genius which could never ignite in the real world but take on a larger-than-life, almost gruesome world of their own as the book progresses. This spiral into the grotesque recalls for me Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, travelling from drawing room to jungle with a growing sense of madness.
You’re fully on the journey throughout, but the lighter touch of the book’s first half is the most enjoyable and, paradoxically, heart-rending, showing the childhood struggles of Oscar and his wild-eyed, sea-plunging, mollusc-drawing, fundamentalist father Theophilus. The comedy and pain of Oscar’s discovery of gambling is exquisite, as the accidental sidekick of the rotund Wardley-Fish.
It’s a strange book, hard to classify and it’s harder still to capture its elusive essence, skitting from farcical to profound to delicate to wild. And the ending combines tragedy with something so preposterous that you admire Carey’s balls in writing it as much as you pity the madness of the characters going through it. It’s a delicacy; may you be as lucky as I in your random discoveries off the shelf.