You bet your life

Margaret Walters

  • Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey
    Faber, 512 pp, £10.95, March 1988, ISBN 0 571 14812 3
  • The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing
    Cape, 131 pp, £9.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 224 02553 8
  • Eight Months on Ghazzah Street by Hilary Mantel
    Viking, 299 pp, £11.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 670 82117 9

Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda is a tall story, as elaborate and fantastical as any of the yarns spun by the trickster hero of his last novel Illywhacker. For one thing, it’s a family history, and we’re all of us secretly stunned by the coincidences which have resulted, against the odds, in our existence. And the narrator’s account of his great-grandfather, the Reverend Oscar Hopkins, is, by any standards, a weird one. It begins in Devon, with a Christmas pudding snatched from the child’s lips by his harsh Plymouth Brethren father. It ends – as a direct consequence of that pudding – half a world away in 1866, as Oscar sits, ill and miserable, in a glass church drifting on barges down a remote Australian river. He’s there because of a wager with Lucinda Leplastrier whom he loves – and who will not be the narrator’s great-grandmother. The church itself is airily beautiful, a ‘crystal-pure bat-winged structure’, the product of years of dreaming. It’s also a folly, quite unsuited to the climate, already battered and twisted and cracked. And it’s heavy: made of ‘thirty hundredweight of cast-iron rods, five hundred and sixty-two glass sheets weighing two pounds each, twenty gross of nuts and bolts, sixty pounds of putty, five gallons of linseed oil’. The miserable effort needed to transport it across the trackless bush causes more than one death.

Carey, like his two main characters, is a gambler: he has a bet on with the reader. He lays his plots in exuberantly meticulous detail, each segment carefully slotted into its proper place in the slowly emerging pattern, until we’re led to that silly, beautiful conceit, the glass church, and find it, like the novel, plausible, irresistible.

Oscar and Lucinda is a long novel, and – like the 19th-century writers Carey is challenging – it’s ambitious. Love, death, religion, sin, personal and national identity – they’re all in there somewhere. But it’s his feeling for physical detail and process that makes Carey’s prose sing. Devon lanes, the seedy streets of Notting Hill, race tracks, dog fights, an ocean liner, a glass factory, a Chinese gambling den, a stuffy clerk’s room – they’re all conjured up in brilliant, solid detail. And even minor characters emerge with hallucinatory clarity: the wife of the Anglican vicar who’d be better at the job than her husband and who can’t resist a theological argument; a woman whose husband was killed by blacks and who is torn between virulent dreams of revenge and her obsession with the pornographic pictures in his belongings.

But at the core of the novel there’s an odd, off-beat love story, between a pair of gamblers – the obsessive Oscar and the compulsive Lucinda. Oscar gambles for God; desperately worried that his much-loved but sternly Fundementalist father was wrong about that Christmas pudding, he starts looking for signs of God’s will, throwing stones in a kind of mystic hopscotch. The message from God seems to be that he must leave home (he and his father are both heart-broken) and dump himself and his agonised conscience on the Anglican priest. (This part of the story is adapted, very movingly, from Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son.) At Oxford, and desperately poor, Oscar is serenely confident God will provide, and so he does, at the race track and dog fights and the card table. A toss of a coin convinced him that God needs him as a missionary to New South Wales: he embraces the notion fervently because he doesn’t want to go, being terrified of water.

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