Monday, November 30, 2009

Parrot and Olivier in America
Reviewed by Andrew Riemer, Sydney Morning Herald

Parrot and Olivier
By Peter Carey

Hamish Hamilton,

Parrot and Olivier in America sounds like the title of a children's book, and there is indeed something irresistibly youthful about the zing and bounce of this picaresque tale spanning three continents. This is Peter Carey at his best: playful, extravagant, even rambling at times, yet fully in control. It is sometimes hard to know where these adventures are heading, yet they all finish up going somewhere meaningful and satisfying.

As with many of Carey's other works, there is a historical model – perhaps two – behind this extravaganza. It begins in France in the early years of the 19th century. Olivier de Garmont is the scion of two noble families, survivors of the Revolution and of the Terror of 1793, who have retreated to their chateau in Normandy while the vile Bonaparte reigns supreme. Olivier is a sensitive, sickly child – the servant girl Odile is often ordered to fetch the Chinese bowl filled with leeches – whose world seems to fall apart when he discovers an illustration in an old broadsheet of the execution of Louis XVI.
The swishing blade of the guillotine haunts every moment of his life. He comes to learn that many of his relatives – each represented by the carcass of a pigeon wrapped in paper – had fallen victim to that allegedly humane device.

Time passes. When the monarchy is finally restored – after Bonaparte's second exile, to remote St Helena – Olivier's family finds itself scorned by the new order, despite their loyalty to the ancien régime during the darkest days of revolution and terror. Olivier, a lawyer in Versailles, falls under the influence of the historian François Guizot, a liberal and an opponent of the reactionary Charles X, whose overthrow in the July Revolution of 1830 Guizot helped engineer. The young lawyer is assailed by peril from all sides. His family decides to ship him off to America – ostensibly to study prison reform – to keep him out of harm's way.
Read the full review at SMH.

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