It’s funny isn’t it how sometimes a novel simply does not call out to be read. All I knew about Oscar and Lucinda, apart from its prize winning credentials, was that it was the story of two gamblers. Not for me, even if it was written by one of the greats of Australian literature. I owned my paperback copy for years – it came as part of a set. I hadn’t consciously bought it. Then the Folio Society put their edition in the sale for less than a tenner … at that price it would make a lovely edition to my FS collection. Then Kim announced Australian Literature Month and Gaskella decided that she would read it. Sometimes the universe must send many signals before I realise that this is a must read and that its reputation is, in fact, very well deserved. This process seems so appropriate to a novel that examines luck, chance and providence in all its many guises.
What was I expecting? A desperado tale set in the gun-slinging, drunken Australian outback perhaps? (No idea if they slung guns in Australia – apologies if not, there’s no accounting for my imagination …) I certainly didn’t expect to start on the Devon coast with the story of a young boy and his Plymouth Brethren minister father. A father whose heart he broke by defecting to become an Anglican minister and a compulsive gambler. (Horses – he was fortunate – his winnings paid his way through college … even if he did cut a shambolic figure.)
Lucinda’s life starts in the outback. Orphaned at the tender age of 17, she inherits the proceeds from the sale of her parent’s farm, promptly goes to the city and buys herself a glass factory. (It does make sense in the context of the novel.) The money secures her an independence that other women could only dream of (though tellingly not the respect of her workers) and by degrees she turns into a feisty and headstrong madam. Albeit lonely and so begin her various dalliances at the card tables.
How do these two meet? Well the reader must have patience. Carey is in no rush and tells the parallel stories of their childhood and youth with meticulous precision, taking as much care to ensure that the secondary characters are as real as the principals. So Oscar’s father, Theophilus (meaning lover of God), isn’t simply the principled zealot that the incident with the Christmas pudding would imply. He is a lover of God’s creation, a meticulous marine biologist, and a successful minister. He has been poaching Reverend Stratton’s congregation and so, when Oscar, convinced (by the throw of a stone) that his father is misguided, runs to Reverend Stratton with a request to convert, it is to the Reverend and his wife, a gift from God …. even if they can’t really afford to bring the boy up.
This sets the pattern for Oscar. In pursuing his own aims, he unconsciously ruins the lives of others. There’s certainly no malice in anything Oscar does, nor is there much forward planning. After college, on the toss of a coin, he decides to emigrate to Australia but to get there he must board the ship. The embarkation scenes are pure gold. Oscar’s lifelong fear of water renders him powerless. Carey has manoeuvered Lucinda to be on the same ship.
The rain started again, heavily, and the ganway ahead would not clear. She lifted her umbrella to see properly, peering up from the fourth step. It would appear that there were problems with an invalid. She recognised the red-haired clergyman as the one who had arrived in a hansom, or, rather recognised the hair. It was he who was the invalid. She thought it strange they should carry a man backwards up a gangplank. But then, as she watched, she saw they were no longer going up, but coming down. And this was how she first saw Oscar, altough there was not a lot to see because he had his hands pressed to his face.
Chapter 46 and Lucinda sets eyes on Oscar. It’s not an auspicious start, is it? As they journey towards Australia, they discover each other’s love of gambling and begin to play cards together, unaccompanied in Lucinda’s cabin. This establishes the careless pattern of their relationship which eventually (the languorous pace continues once the shores of Australia are reached) sees Lucinda ruin Oscar’s life. She must become his protectoress. As luck would have it, she’s in a position to become just that. Eventually however, their friendship deepens but somehow or other their future together and Lucinda’s fortune becomes dependent on Oscar delivering a glass church into the outback. (Yes, a glass church in the heat of Australia – completely fantastical in the midst of a novel more on a par with mid-19th century realism).
By which time the denouement has been foreshadowed. It’s just a matter of detail and detail is where Carey excels. (For example, I didn’t know that about the side-effects of laudanum!) The pages turn a little faster during this final adventure which is led by Oscar’s archenemy Mr Jeffries who
was amused at Mr Smudge (derogatory nickname for Oscar) preparing for anything. He had never, in his whole experience, met anyone so mentally and physically unprepared for life.
Mr Jeffries’s assessment of Oscar is correct. Unprepared for life, completely ill-equipped for adventure. This escapade is always going to be a case of snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory and it raises the supreme irony of this being the one thing that Oscar manages supremely well. (Or does it? Is chance, fate or whatever you care to call it, finally settling the bill?)
This novel held me in its thrall. It made me laugh. I didn’t cry but I certainly felt the heartache of some in places. If I hadn’t banned myself from rereading this year, I would probably go back to the beginning and start again to pick up all the nuances that are woven into its tapestry. I will do that sometime (perhaps when I persuade my book group to read it) but meanwhile I’ll just link to John Mullan’s excellent analysis ( 1) Chance 2) Visualisation 3) Origins 4) Reader’s Responses ) and a podcast in which he talks to Carey about the novel.
Thanks to Kim and Gaskella for the providing the impetus I needed to pick this up.