Sunday, 31 January 2010

Book of the Week - Peter Carey, Parrot and Olivier in America

One of the features of the major literary prize lists is the recurrence of a few common names, writers who have become established favourites (usually with good reason) of reviewers and readers alike. Peter Carey undoubtedly falls into that category, and his new novel is released in the UK on 4th February. He has won the Booker Prize twice previously - it should be possible to pick up a signed copy of Parrot and Olivier in America at cost this week, and this should be a good read and a good investment.

Carey was born in Australia in 1943. He was educated at the local state school until the age of eleven and then became a boarder at Geelong Grammar School. He was a student there between 1954 and 1960 — after Rupert Murdoch had graduated and before Prince Charles arrived. In 1961 he studied science for a single unsuccessful year at Monash University. He was then employed by an advertising agency where he began to receive his literary education, meeting Faulkner, Joyce, Kerouac and other writers he had previously been unaware of. He was nineteen. For the next thirteen years he wrote fiction at night and weekends, working in many advertising agencies in Melbourne, London and Sydney. After four novels had been written and rejected The Fat Man in History — a short story collection — was published in 1974. This slim book made him an overnight success. From 1976 Carey worked one week a month for Grey Advertising, then, in 1981 he established a small business where his generous partner required him to work only two afternoons a week. Thus between 1976 and 1990, he was able to pursue literature obsessively. It was during this period that he wrote War Crimes, Bliss, Illywhacker, Oscar and Lucinda. Illywhacker was short listed for the Booker Prize. Oscar and Lucinda won it. Uncomfortable with this success he began work on The Tax Inspector. In 1990 he moved to New York where he completed The Tax Inspector. He taught at NYU one night a week. Later he would have similar jobs at Princeton, The New School and Barnard College. During these years he wrote The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, Jack Maggs, and True History of the Kelly Gang for which he won his second Booker Prize. In 2003 he joined Hunter College, New York, as the Director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing. In the years since he has written My Life as a Fake, Theft, and His Illegal Self.

"Olivier is an aristocrat, one of an endangered species born in France just after the Revolution. Parrot, the son of an itinerant English printer and twice Olivier's age, always wanted to be an artist but has ended up a servant. Starting on different sides of history, their lives will be permanently joined by an enigmatic, one-armed Marquis. When Olivier sets sail for the New World — ostensibly to study its prisons, but in reality to avoid yet another revolution — Parrot is sent with him, as spy, protector, foe and foil. As the narrative shifts between the perspectives of Parrot and Olivier, between their picaresque adventures apart and together — in love and politics, prisons and finance, homelands and brave new lands — a most unlikely friendship begins to take hold. And with their story, Peter Carey explores the adventure of American democracy — in theory, in practice, and in ongoing argument. Parrot and Olivier in America is a dazzlingly inventive reimagining of Alexis de Tocqueville's famous journey, brilliantly evoking the Old World colliding with the New. Above all, it is a wildly funny and deeply tender portrait of two men who come to form an almost impossible friendship, and a completely improbable work of art."

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