Master and Man in America

This is my review of Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey.

That this is an old-fashioned "good yarn" was not initially clear to me because, being the work of a twice Booker prize-winner who has chosen to use the style of the early C19 in which the story is set, the sentiments and language tend to be quite wordy and flowery.

The narration alternates between the two main characters. Olivier is the delicate, pampered French aristocratic, whose overprotective mother, traumatised by the guillotining of her close relatives, insists on packing him off to America to escape the risk of prison or worse in a politically volatile France. Parrott, the wily, hard-bitten servant in thrall to the manipulative Monsieur, a close friend of "Maman", is sent off to look after, and also spy on Olivier. From an initial mutual dislike, an understanding and "modern" friendship grows, of the type that could only occur in the New World.

After wading through the first chapter about Olivier, which I found very stiff and unnatural (perhaps intentionally in view of his family's fossilised values), I got used to the style of writing, and became absorbed in the characters and the plot. Many scenes and dialogues are very entertaining or imaginative (sometimes a bit too far-fetched!), and there is some powerful drama, as in the scene where men leap, their bodies on fire, out of a blazing building. Descriptions of Dartmoor where Parrot spent some of his childhood are very vivid, and his nostalgia for life with his long-dead father is moving.

Some of the minor characters are rather sketchy, even unconvincing, although Godefroy father and daughter are "flesh and blood" representatives of a new-style "meritocracy". I could never quite believe in the beautiful Mathilde's apparently unquenchable love for the much older, grizzled Parrott, who for much of the book seems to be something of a loser. However, Olivier and Parrott are portrayed as complex characters, and we see how their emotions are formed and changed by experience. I found myself in sympathy with Parrott, portrayed as a man who survives against the odds, but is tortured by his lack of achievement as an artist.

It is interesting to think about what life must have been like for the children of aristocrats who survived the first violent waves of killings in the French Revolution. It was unclear how long the restored monarchy in France would last and one could be penalised for having chosen to stay in the country and keep a low profile, rather than flee into exile with the remnants of the royal family. Also, it was uncertain what sort of democracy might be established in France and what its effects would be. So, Olivier, whose official excuse for being in America is to study prisons, actually becomes fascinated with recording this new democracy . He is in fact modelled loosely on the writer De Tocqueville.

I like the way in which Parrott adapts easily to American life, and takes the opportunity to advance in life, whereas Olivier is unable to shed totally the constraints of his formal, convention-ridden upbringing. Yet, he has the last word because he can predict how "democracy will not ripen well", the "perfidious press" will feed people's ignorance, and "the public squares will be occupied by an uneducated class who will not be able to quote a line of Shakespeare." Although he is a hopeless snob, when you think how things have turned out under Bush Jnr and the prospect of Palin, he has a point.

I was distracted by minor discrepancies e.g. Parrot says on p.109 he has lived with Mathilde for six years, but implies on p.163 that it is only two. There is also a tad too much reliance on coincidences. The language can be a bit too convoluted at times, but I think that is to create a C19 atmosphere.

Overall, this is an entertaining, often funny and moving read, which proves thought-provoking at the end. It would make a worthy Booker winner.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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