I will admit upfront that I have two major barriers to appreciating this novel. First, while I am certainly aware of de Tocqueville’s work and appreciate its signifigance, I have never read it. Carey makes allusions later on in that Acknowledgement to sentences and phrases that he has borrowed and buried — alas, they would pass me by. Perhaps more significant in terms of my appreciation of the book, I am at best a reluctant Carey reader. I have some appreciation for his first Booker winner, Oscar and Lucinda, and rather enjoyed Theft, mainly because of my interest in fiction about the art world. I’ve tried most of his other works and found them wanting, particularly his historical fiction (which certainly has legions of fans). So when Parrot and Olivier in America was published, I gave it a pass — I figured if it made the Booker longlist I would pick it up then.
Which I have — and jumping to the end, my initial misgivings have been confirmed. I can understand why this book has its fans; I am not one of them.
Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Barfleur de Garmont is the de Tocqueville character of the book. The son of a noble and titled French family he represents the declining generation of the aristocracy of late 18th century France. A child of privilege, that privilege is disappearing — not only are the French aristorcrats being replaced, his family is on the bottom rung of that bunch because they failed to flee into exile when Napolean made his move. Carey opens the book with a chapter that reflects Proust:
Poor Maman. See how she suffers, her face gaunt, glowing in the gloom. In her youth she was never ill. In Paris she was a beauty, but Paris has been taken from her. She has her own grand house on the rue Saint-Dominique, but my father is a cautious man and we are in exile in the country. My mother is in mourning in Paris, although sometimes you might imagine her a penitent. Has she sinned? Who would tell me if she had? Her clothes are somber and loose-fitting as is appropriate for a religious woman. Her life is a kind of holy suffering existing on a plane above her disappointing child.
Parrot, on the other hand, is a child of the proletariat. The son of an itinerant journeyman printer, he is a representative of the future that is finding its way to fulfillment in Europe:
“Children remain tied to their father by nature only so long as they need them for preservation. As soon as it ends,” so wrote the great Rousseau, “the natural bond is dissolved. Once the children are freed from obediance they owe their father and the father is freed from their responsibilities towards them, both parties equally regain their independence. If they continue to remain united, it is no longer nature but their own choice, which unites them; and the family as such is kept together only by agreement.
More or less that’s it.
That last sentence is a fair summary of the premise of the book. While it takes a large number of pages for Carey to get them there, Olivier and Parrot end up in America, carrying the remnants of their French social and familial past to the new land of liberty. Olivier is ostensibly researching a book on American prisons, but he becomes fascinated by the new nation of liberty. Parrot is his servant (the novel does have an interesting, long diversion where he spends time in Australia as a prisoner on his way there, but it is just a diversion) who knows the old rules of engagement but discovers in the United States that they no longer apply. It gives away nothing to say that in this new land, they will find that their traditional roles become reversed.
Carey is a competent and talented writer and he carefully and deliberately unfolds that story in a reader-friendly fashion. He has obviously researched his material thoroughly — too thoroughly for this reader, because long sections of the book are taken up with explanations of the obvious that left me wanting only for them to end. While I appreciate the author’s determination to chronicle the “American” story, he does not have much new to add — his respect for the obvious history is so great that it comes to dominate the book.
All of which results in a curious flatness in the narrative, despite the author’s talents. Neither Olivier nor Parrot become real living characters; rather they are developed as examples of what the new nation produces when individuals from the background of the old Europe are located there. The story unfolds in an entirely predictable fashion and — if you haven’t enrolled in the value of the two central characters — there is an all-too-comfortable certainty of what will happen next.
I am not an avid reader of historical fiction, so the result for me was a growing frustration; I am certain that those who like the genre more than I do would find more to appreciate in this novel than I did. Having said that, Parrot and Olivier in America is no Wolf Hall — unlike Hilary Mantel, Carey is not trying to present a new version of the historical story, he is much more trying to faithfully recount a conventional one.
The novel is not a particularly difficult read. Indeed as Carey piles detail upon detail, I profess to a bit of admiration for the way he made the mundane and seemingly trivial a vital part of the story. But, since I could engage with neither his recital of the history nor the characters whom he places at the centre of the story, I found the reading experience to be dis-engaging rather than engaging. In one sense, I appreciate that Carey has chosen to pay tribute to his adopted land but as a reader I sure wish he had found a more exciting and intriguing way of doing it.
I am not surprised that Parrot and Olivier in America made the Booker longlist; I see it as a kind of lifetime achievement recognition for a novelist who has written historical novels set in a number of different places and now chooses to address the United States. I will be disappointed if it advances further — too many other authors have chosen to take more risks and produced far more interesting volumes than this one in the past year.