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.

Carey takes chances with Oscar. He’s feeble, febrile, usually filthy; on the last dreadful expedition with the church he suffers agonies because he’s too prim to bathe naked with the other men. He’s self-absorbed and selfless at the same time, accident-prone, masochistic: a kind of holy fool. But just as he grates intolerably on our nerves, nothing but an ‘Odd Bod’, as his fellow students claim, ‘a queer bird, a stork, a mantis, a gawk’, we glimpse him through the loving eyes of his father, his one Oxford friend, or Lucinda, and suddenly, with his heart-shaped face and red hair and green eyes he’s a Dante Gabriel Rossetti angel. Usually inarticulate, he has moments of blazing eloquence. At his first meeting with Lucinda, on a ship to Australia, he is swept away by a Pascalian vision:

We bet that there is a God. We bet our life on it. We calculate the odds, the return that we shall sit with the saints in paradise ... We must gamble every instant of our allotted span. We must stake everything on the unprovable fact of His existence.

The fact that he’s justifying playing cards with Lucinda doesn’t detract from the power of the words. But, typically, when a storm blows up Oscar, in his cruelly solipsistic universe, assumes he’s being punished for giving in to his obsession. He’s reduced, before the eyes of the baffled, angry Lucinda, to a cringing, cowering, cowardly wreck.

Lucinda is one of the novel’s triumphs, a complex, difficult, convincingly intelligent woman. She has grown up sturdy and unconventional, with a confidence partly learned from a blue-stocking mother, a friend of George Eliot, and partly developed in her solitary childhood. Orphaned at 18, she sets out for Sydney, and uses half her parents’ fortune to buy a glass factory. Unladylike, childishly impatient of convention, she’s as blind, in her way, as Oscar is, and as selfish. But she’s a survivor – the end of the book leaves her with nothing at all, but we believe the narrator’s claim that her real life is just beginning. Her strength is her adaptability. Refusing to live according to set patterns, contemptuous of pious hypocrisies, she’s vulnerable, confused and often unhappy. But she’s learned from her mother not to settle for anything small, and she sets out to invent her own life. The instinct that attracts her to glass is sure: she knows ‘that glass is a thing in disguise, an actor, is not solid at all, but a liquid, that an old sheet of glass will not only take on a royal and purplish tinge but will reveal its true liquid nature by having grown fatter at the bottom and thinner at the top, and that even while it is as fragile as the ice on a Paramatta puddle, it is stronger under compression than Sydney sandstone, that it is invisible, solid, in short, a joyous and paradoxical thing, as good a material as any to build a life from.’

Carey is both funny and precise about the difficulties of an independent-minded woman in the crude, prim, pretentious world of Victorian Sydney. Though Lucinda becomes passionately knowledgeable about glass, the men in her factory distrust her and resent her constant visits. She complains bitterly to her mentor, the Reverend Dennis Hasset, about the power of men; when he understandably looks puzzled – he’s quite unable to cope with her energy, and her innocent defiance of convention helps to ruin him – she explains impatiently that it’s the power ‘of men, men in a group, men in their certainty, men on a street corner or in a hall. It is like a voodoo.’ She finds freedom from that male voodoo in the underworld of gambling, where class and sex count for very little. Guilty about her unearned fortune, she’s more excited by losing than by winning: but the real pull is that she feels free of the ‘corsets of convention’ at the tables, she is ‘not compelled to pretend, could be silent without being thought dull, could frown without people being overly solicitous about one’s happiness, could triumph over a man and not have to giggle and simper.’

The love that grows between the pair – on the ocean liner, in a Chinese gambling hell, at Lucinda’s glass works – is extravagantly comic, desperately intense, and based on ignorance and misunderstanding. They’re a pair of freaks – and as Lucinda sees it, that’s part of the charm. ‘They had both grown used to the attentions that are the eccentric’s lot – the covert glances, smiles, whispers, worse. Lucinda was accustomed to looking at no one in the street. It was an out-of-focus town of men with seas of bobbing hats. But on this night she felt the streets accept them.’ Gamblers to the core, they cut through their uncertainties and pledge their love with an elaborate wager: Oscar sets out, the church he’s dreamed packed into boxes dragged by oxen, into the bleak interior.

The ridiculous and terrible journey calls out some of Carey’s best writing. His novels, increasingly, seem to be attempts to come to grips with that harsh, intractable land, so resistant to literary vocabulary, its brief history so scarred with violent paradoxes. In Bliss, the hero escaped from the corrupt city to the bush, where a man can still build and plant and live idyllically free. In Illywhacker, Carey’s vision is darker; one of the characters, Leah, earns her living by writing, and though she loves the vivid colours of the townships and small dusty roads, she recognises that they are ‘raw optimistic tracks that cut the arteries of an ancient culture before a new one had been born’. She admits sadly that ‘it is a black man’s country, sharp stones, rocks, sticks, bull ants, flies. We can only move around it like tourists.’ In Oscar and Lucinda, the well-meaning religious tourists are killers. Lucinda recognises the truth when one of her gambling friends, making polite conversation, remarks that they’re living in a ‘non-Christian landscape’. She’s suddenly overwhelmed by childhood memories of the blacks – already being exterminated – she’d once glimpsed by the back creek. ‘She was frightened, not that they would hurt her, it was a bigger fear than that. She turned and ran, ran across the flat green pasture with plovers shrieking above her, ran out into the sunlight where the yellow sap-bright fence posts, peeled of slippery bark, with round shiny backs and rough straight sides, were lying in a higgledy-piggledy pile on a bed of stringy bruised bark ... She felt ghosts here, but not Christian ghosts.’ Oscar, of course, is oblivious to the harsh bright country Lucinda sees so clearly. Ill, drugged, fearing that the wager was prompted by the devil, he notices nothing. The father he’d left so far behind, the man who could decipher the minute life of the Devon seacoast, might have been temperamentally more attuned to this alien place.

Locked in the labyrinth of his European theology, caught between God and the devil, Oscar hardly begins to understand what the ‘christianising’ of that ‘non-Christian landscape’ involves. It’s left to Kumbaingiri Billy, an old black man the narrator had met as a child, to tell the nasty bloody story of the coming of the white men and their strange glass church. And there’s a further irony that the novel leaves hanging. Oscar gives his life for love, for the bright beautiful church that is, surely, godly, and a triumph of the human imagination. But ‘after only one hundred and twenty years this church, the one in which my mother sang “Holy, Holy, Holy” ... the one my great-grandfather assembled, shining clear, like heaven itself, on the Bellingen River, this church has been carted away. It was not of any use.’

Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child is chilly and disconcerting: told with the cool blandness of a folk tale, a horror story, it offers us, in the end, neither explanation nor comfort. Harriet and David are a very ordinary couple growing up in the Sixties, feeling quite out of tune with all that greedy experimenting and selfishness and sexual extravagance. If Lessing’s cool prose mocks some of the Sixties shibboleths, she has no mercy on the smug clichés of her hero and heroine. Harriet feels her virginity is ‘something like a present wrapped up in layers of deliciously pretty paper, to be given with discretion to the right person’; when she meets the equally respectable David at an office party, they know at once that ‘they were made for each other.’

They buy a big old house, start having children, and live out an advertiser’s dream of happy, cosy domesticity. ‘This is what everyone wants, really, but we’ve been brainwashed out of it. People want to live like this, really,’ Harriet insists: she insists, too, that their domestic bliss isn’t just luck, but something deserved, earned. She ignores the fact that David’s father pays for the mortgage and her mother has moved in to do most of the housework. When her sister Sarah has a Down’s Syndrome baby, and her husband loses his job, Harriet feels even more righteously satisfied. She ‘said to David, privately, that she did not believe it was bad luck: Sarah and William’s unhappiness, their quarrelling, had probably attracted the mongol child – yes, yes, of course she knew one shouldn’t call them mongol. But the little girl did look a bit like Genghis Khan, didn’t she?’

It’s only with Harriet’s fifth pregnancy that things go wrong. She’s in constant pain, troubled by fantasies that the foetus is poisoning her, unable to sleep because of its energy, as if the child were trying to tear its way out of her body. She’s bad-tempered – and her husband feels, ‘knowing of course this was unfair, that she was breaking the rules of some contract between them: tears and misery had not ever been on their agenda.’

For Harriet, the baby is a monster, ‘like a troll or goblin’, something she doesn’t recognise as human. The doctors insist that he’s just unusually strong, physically precocious, maybe hyperactive. But other people, Harriet notices, stare thoughtfully at him, ‘puzzled, even anxious, though everyone tried to conceal it. There was horror, too: which is what Harriet felt, more and more.’ His brothers and sisters shun him; when their pet dog and cat die mysteriously the child is blamed; he is kept a virtual prisoner in his room. ‘He’s probably just dropped in from Mars,’ David jokes, and increasingly rejects the child. Against her will, Harriet tries to mother him: but she too, and completely seriously, sees him as an alien, a destroyer of the family and everything she values, a non-human who had ‘willed himself to be born, had invaded their ordinariness, which had no defences against him or anything like him’.

Lessing makes it eerily, shockingly convincing. The novella can be read straightforwardly, as a particularly nasty horror story. It can as easily be read as a study of derangement: Harriet’s increasingly desperate and fantastic attempts to make sense of a badly disturbed child. Or it can be read as a kind of parable about the return of the repressed, the way the anger and violence that Harriet and David have excluded from their sweetly domestic world suddenly take on all too physical and destructive a form. Whichever way you take it, and Lessing’s prose remains teasingly opaque, it’s an unnerving reminder that home is where the horror is.

In Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, Hilary Mantel makes skilful use of thriller techniques, as a way of keeping us edgily involved with her heroine, who’s tense and lonely and anxiously trying to make sense of a world she fears, dislikes, and certainly doesn’t understand. Frances Shore’s engineer husband is working in Saudi Arabia; she can’t get a job, women aren’t allowed to drive or walk on the streets or even go shopping alone. Occasional meetings with other expatriates are comic disasters – Frances is spiky and argumentative, not the sort of woman to be smoothly polite even to her husband’s boss. So she’s a virtual prisoner in her block of flats, making tentative but frustrating contact with her two neighbours, a Pakistani and a Saudi woman. Mantel gets her angry claustrophobia brilliantly: her impatience with the constantly repeated horror stories (princesses stoned to death for adultery, the inevitable Helen Smith case), her fury at how little she – or the other Europeans – understand the Saudis.

Frances becomes obsessed with the empty flat immediately above hers, with rumours that someone high up in the Government is using it for an adulterous liaison. She listens for footsteps, watches, thinks she hears someone crying, believes someone is being kept prisoner there; the mysterious flat becomes the centre of her life, her sexual fantasies, her intense baffled curiosity about the country she’s hardly living in. But then a visiting Englishman, stumbling drunkenly up to the roof, meets a visitor to the flat – and is killed almost at once in a car accident. It becomes increasingly clear that Frances’s curiosity is putting her in danger, that the flat is the centre of a plot that involves real violence. But she can’t read the clues. So what might be a thriller, turns inevitably, cleverly, inward, and we’re left with Frances’s discovery that in a country where she has no language she’s nothing, ‘whited-out ... the negative of myself’.