Thursday, May 16, 2013

241. Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey

Oscar and Lucinda (Faber and Faber, 1988; 512) by Peter Carey won the Booker Prize in 1988. It was also short-listed for the Best of the Booker in 1993 to celebrate the award's 25th anniversary alongside such books as Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie (the winner), The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer, Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker, and The Siege of Krishnapur by J. G. Farrell. 

Oscar and Lucinda is a quasi-romance, quasi-historical, novel narrated by the great grandson of Oscar Hopkins but in an omnipresent manner. The story, though a narration, explored the pathways, decisions, eccentricities, trials and tribulations, and weirdness of Oscar Hopkins and Lucinda Leplastrier. The story traces the lives of these two eccentrics before they met on the Leviathan on their way to Sydney and after they arrived. It details their inchoate love affair, their problems, and their doom.

Oscar Hopkins brought up in a strict religious home, by a father, Theophilus Hopkins, who  was a preacher at the Plymouth Brethren and also a biologist. At a young age of fifteen, whilst throwing lots, Oscar believed he saw signs from God to become an Anglican. Unable to avoid the persistent signs directing him to Rev. Stratton's homestead, he migrated from his father's house to the home of the Anglican priest, leaving Theophilus in tears and prayers. Later, at Oriel, Oscar would enrol to become an Anglican priest. And there, at Epsom, Oscar would officially begin his gambling escapades, with the belief that it was a message from God and therefore divine and not sinful if he did not live a pleasurable lifestyle on his winnings. Thus, even though Oscar developed a complicated system that ensured that he won consequential amounts and repeatedly, he never sought to live off his proceedings but to give it out to charity after he had paid his tuition fees and all his necessities. He bought his coats, shoes, and clothes from the flea market where the poorest of the poor patronised. As noble as his ideas were, gambling would gradually become an obsession and he for this he would travel to place bets on horses and on Sundays would sneak into obscure gambling hideouts to place bets on dogfights. To leave this life behind, Oscar decided to set out to the colony of Australia; there he decided to begin life anew, one devoid of gambling.

Lucinda Laplastrier's parents had moved to Australia. They settled at Parramatta and have appropriated huge acres of land for themselves, from the blacks. Now upon the death of Elizabeth - she being the only living relative Lucinda had following the death of his father earlier - the land was subdivided and sold and the proceeds handed over to her when she turned 17. Having come into this sudden and stupendous wealth, and being weighed down by its source, Lucinda - after leaving Parramatta to Sydney - resorted to gambling, compulsively. This gambling addiction, at the subliminal level, was an attempt to justify this wealth. 
Likewise this wager - she saw now, with her head pressed hard against the window pane, with her eyes tight shut, that she had only made this bet so that she might finally do what she had never managed to do upon a gaming table, that is to slough off the great guilty weight of her inheritance, drop it like a rusty armour she did not need, that she be light as a feather, as uncorrupted as an empty purse, unencumbered, naked, with her face pressed into the soft and secret place at the bottom of his graceful neck. [446]
Lucinda's desire was to liberate her womenfolks from the domination of men. She would buy a glass factory upon reaching Sydney and would later find that the quest to liberate could possibly be beyond her for she herself had to tolerate snide remarks, tirades, denigration, and discrimination, including from her male workers, for remaining unmarried and for her love for gambling and would travel to England in search of a man. However, Lucinda's eccentricity is not that she broke the gender-defined borders with her gambling and Bohemian lifestyle, but that even though she gambled and placed her lots wantonly and even toyed with the idea of the working class, she was also very scared of losing her wealth. Lucinda was morbidly scared of poverty.

The two - Lucinda and Oscar - would meet on a ship, the Leviathan, bound for Sydney, from England. They would be attracted  and bound by their common love, gambling, and would later place the ultimate bet - borne out of mis-communications and mal-communications; a bet to transport a glass church from Sydney to Boat Harbour in the interior regions of Australia, that would spell their doom. To one this bet was a test of love; to the other, it was an expression of love.

Several issues come to the fore in this novel. First, the failure of Lucinda to liberate her sex reflects ironically, to an extent, some of the issues raised by Thomas Hardy in Jude the Obscure. Specifically, the effect of societal expectations, perceptions, prescriptions, formal and informal regulations about marriage, relationships and gender-specific behaviours and in particular reference to young free-spirited women. The effect, in this case, arose not from the couple's unwillingness to formally marry as in the case of Sue and Jude. It arose from their inability to transform their love-tensed friendship into marriage due to their inability to freely communicate their emotions to each, which in itself is a direct result these social norms. Consequently, the two then became societal outcasts, albeit for very different reasons. Oscar was defrocked for gambling and associating with an unmarried woman. Lucinda, was on the other hand, informally neglected and shunned by society for not behaving within the norms and values required of her sex; for attempting to break, and breaking, the gender barrier that separates her sex from men by engaging publicly in gambling and accommodating a man - Oscar - she is not engaged to. 

The second issue is the treatment of native black Australians. They were almost described and referred to as items, which depicted what the case was during the time, and were on the periphery of the story. They never had emotions, were never individuals (except one) and were always referred to en bloc. When Mrs Burrows husband was killed it was said:
Mrs Burrows, a vocal supporter of the American rebels, was the widow of an army captain who had been killed by blacks in the 'Falls' district near the head-waters of the Manning River [160]
'He was killed by blacks', as if 'blacks' here is in reference to a disease. In this way, Oscar and Lucinda partly dealt with the unsavoury part of Australian history. It also captured the migration to and population of that continent and the gradual crowding out of the natives.

There are several twists and turns that would likely surprise the reader. In one instance, one might think that Peter Carey is taking them to in one direction only to realise that it was not so. For how Oscar left his seed in Boat Harbour the instance of his arrival is shocking. Sexual suppression, in relation to social norms, was another subject matter. It was clear that both Oscar and Lucinda suffered from their inability to live their sex and to respond to their emotional needs.

Oscar and Lucinda is a worthy read.

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