87 of 90 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Unreliable narrators in America
Peter Carey has always been a master at the unreliable narrator and in Parrot and Olivier we are treated to two of the them, alternating chapters and versions of the truth. Olivier is a spoilt young French aristocrat who is sent abroad to save his skin at the time of the 1830 revolution. His unwilling servant is Parrot who has far more practical commonsense than his...
Published on 11 Feb 2010 by Jon
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars curate's egg
Peter Carey has not written an "un-put-downable" book - the plot lines just aren't tight and sustaining enough - and the reader is left primarily to enjoy a slowly developing respect, almost friendship, between a master and a servant in the mid-nineteenth century. When Parrot, the servant, narrates there is much meandering and musing and I often longed for a crisper pace...
Published on 29 Aug 2011 by Mr. C. G. Leggatt
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87 of 90 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Unreliable narrators in America,
Peter Carey has always been a master at the unreliable narrator and in Parrot and Olivier we are treated to two of the them, alternating chapters and versions of the truth. Olivier is a spoilt young French aristocrat who is sent abroad to save his skin at the time of the 1830 revolution. His unwilling servant is Parrot who has far more practical commonsense than his master but has been sorely abused by dubious French aristocrats before. Both of the damaged heroes are searching for love and respect and to varying degrees they find it, though in both cases their long term happiness is in doubt. At least one of our narrators has a genuine historical counterpart, and other characters we meet have a passing resemblance to real people. However, Carey, as usual, has his way of subverting history, while at the same time he raises issues about the relationship between the New and Old Worlds, and the ways that they are governed . Don't expect Henry James, do expect Peter Carey on top form.
40 of 41 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars `I had not known America would be like this.',
The novel opens in France where sickly, sensitive Olivier de Garmont and the remnants of his aristocratic family have survived the Revolution and the Terror of 1793, and are surviving the Bonaparte regime in their chateau in Normandy. The restoration of the monarchy brings no joy to Olivier's family, and his family decides to send him to America - ostensibly to study prison reform.
Parrot, considerably older than Olivier, is the son of an itinerant English printer. Olivier and Parrot are brought together by the mysterious one-armed Marquis de Tilbot whose presence looms large across the novel. When Olivier sets sail for America, Parrot accompanies him as both protector and spy.
The narrative shifts between the perspectives of Parrot and Olivier, covering both their adventures together and their separate lives. This enables the introduction and exploration of a number of different themes in the novel: including love, politics and ambition. I especially enjoyed the differing views of democracy:
`In a democracy, it seemed, one could not go against a servant's will.' (Olivier)
`I read Tom Paine by candlelight, but for 18 hours a day I was a vassal.' (Parrot)
Olivier is trapped by his past, caught between his aristocratic past and a brash new world where equality means dealing with people of different classes and station in life as though they are equals. Olivier is never really comfortable in America, although when he falls in love with an American heiress he sees some possibilities. Parrot, on the other hand, has already experienced much in his life and is more flexible in his approach to opportunities. It is Parrot's narrative that particularly enriches the story because it enlarges the world beyond that of the myopic Olivier.
The novel may have been inspired by Alexis de Tocqueville's travels through America, but there is more than one story in this novel. Parrot's life has been far more varied and he is, it seems, far better equipped to survive in the New World.
I am tempted to write more about this novel: it's vibrant, energetic and vastly entertaining. But for me, a lot of the pleasure was derived from reading the novel without knowing what was likely to happen next, and I don't wish to spoil this for others. Read it for pleasure, dissect it for significant themes if you so choose. But if you do choose to explore those themes then you may need to reread the novel - or read it at a far more leisurely pace than I did.
`Who would have imagined such an extraordinary world?'
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Master and Man in America,
That this is an old-fashioned "good yarn" was not initially clear to me because, being the work of a twice Booker prize-winner who has chosen to use the style of the early C19 in which the story is set, the sentiments and language tend to be quite wordy and flowery.
The narration alternates between the two main characters. Olivier is the delicate, pampered French aristocratic, whose overprotective mother, traumatised by the guillotining of her close relatives, insists on packing him off to America to escape the risk of prison or worse in a politically volatile France. Parrott, the wily, hard-bitten servant in thrall to the manipulative Monsieur, a close friend of "Maman", is sent off to look after, and also spy on Olivier. From an initial mutual dislike, an understanding and "modern" friendship grows, of the type that could only occur in the New World.
After wading through the first chapter about Olivier, which I found very stiff and unnatural (perhaps intentionally in view of his family's fossilised values), I got used to the style of writing, and became absorbed in the characters and the plot. Many scenes and dialogues are very entertaining or imaginative (sometimes a bit too far-fetched!), and there is some powerful drama, as in the scene where men leap, their bodies on fire, out of a blazing building. Descriptions of Dartmoor where Parrot spent some of his childhood are very vivid, and his nostalgia for life with his long-dead father is moving.
Some of the minor characters are rather sketchy, even unconvincing, although Godefroy father and daughter are "flesh and blood" representatives of a new-style "meritocracy". I could never quite believe in the beautiful Mathilde's apparently unquenchable love for the much older, grizzled Parrott, who for much of the book seems to be something of a loser. However, Olivier and Parrott are portrayed as complex characters, and we see how their emotions are formed and changed by experience. I found myself in sympathy with Parrott, portrayed as a man who survives against the odds, but is tortured by his lack of achievement as an artist.
It is interesting to think about what life must have been like for the children of aristocrats who survived the first violent waves of killings in the French Revolution. It was unclear how long the restored monarchy in France would last and one could be penalised for having chosen to stay in the country and keep a low profile, rather than flee into exile with the remnants of the royal family. Also, it was uncertain what sort of democracy might be established in France and what its effects would be. So, Olivier, whose official excuse for being in America is to study prisons, actually becomes fascinated with recording this new democracy . He is in fact modelled loosely on the writer De Tocqueville.
I like the way in which Parrott adapts easily to American life, and takes the opportunity to advance in life, whereas Olivier is unable to shed totally the constraints of his formal, convention-ridden upbringing. Yet, he has the last word because he can predict how "democracy will not ripen well", the "perfidious press" will feed people's ignorance, and "the public squares will be occupied by an uneducated class who will not be able to quote a line of Shakespeare." Although he is a hopeless snob, when you think how things have turned out under Bush Jnr and the prospect of Palin, he has a point.
I was distracted by minor discrepancies e.g. Parrot says on p.109 he has lived with Mathilde for six years, but implies on p.163 that it is only two. There is also a tad too much reliance on coincidences. The language can be a bit too convoluted at times, but I think that is to create a C19 atmosphere.
Overall, this is an entertaining, often funny and moving read, which proves thought-provoking at the end. It would make a worthy Booker winner.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars curate's egg,
Peter Carey has not written an "un-put-downable" book - the plot lines just aren't tight and sustaining enough - and the reader is left primarily to enjoy a slowly developing respect, almost friendship, between a master and a servant in the mid-nineteenth century. When Parrot, the servant, narrates there is much meandering and musing and I often longed for a crisper pace. There are extraordinary coincidences and some oddities that grate - Parrot, writing in the nineteenth century, would not have referred to "Elizabeth 1" anymore as, today, we would refer to Queen Anne 1. He is 49 years old and yet, in an age of shorter life-expectancy, two people who were adults when he was a child are still around, despite both having physical impairments. Finally, for me, Parrot seems weakly resigned to never seeing his wife and child in Australia again - surely his every action should be vigorously directed toward a reunion.
The above noted, there remains considerable charm and sharp observation of time and place that ultimately makes this a delightful read - if one that you do have to work at. The younger aristocratic Olivier is a good balance to Parrot and his blossoming in America is well developed. He also has some brilliantly written "laugh out loud" lines that are a nice foil to Parrot's more plodding narrative. Despite frustrations, I'm glad I stayed the course.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Rich characterization,
I have just finished Parrot and Olivier and on balance I thought it was brilliant. The two voices are superbly drawn and sustained throughout the novel. To their credit, I always preferred the voice I was reading until I got onto the other voice and then thought "no, this one is even better". There's a wonderful interaction between the two characters and the strongest parts of the novel are when Parrot and Olivier are together and in their respective pre-ambles. This is truly a character driven novel - the plot, whilst linear, doesn't feel terribly consequential and the fact that this is a fictionalization of Tocqueville is almost incidental.
If there is a weak link, it is when the two arrive in America and go separate ways. The new characters (Eckhart, Mathilde, Amelia, etc.) just don't lift off the page quite as well as Watkins, the marquis de Tilbot et al. The other minor criticism is that Peter Carey doesn't do a particularly effective job of portraying the passing of time. There are various parts of the novel where the narrative jars as one discovers that the young lad is really an adult, and that the adult is really quite an old man.
But these are relatively minor flaws when set aside such rich, larger than life charactirization, the complex relationship between Parrot and Olivier, and the superb, convincing detailing of life in the early days of the US. There was also a tendency for Carey to drop in comments from his characters, apparently contemporary thoughts, that appeared deeply ironic in the context of recent US history. Given that the novel is based on Tocqueville's life and writing, one is left to wonder how much of the prescience is genuine Tocqueville and how much is Peter Carey using the licence of hindsight.
Overall, this was an enormously enjoyable read and the many pages flew by.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Servant and Aristocrat Address 1830's America,
Olivier de Garmont, a 25 year-old French nobleman whose grandfather was guillotined during the 1789 revolution, is drugged by the Marquis de Tilbot, a close friend of Olivier's monarchist mother, and shanghaied to America. There, he is safe from the excesses of the 1830 July Revolution while he works as representative of the French government, investigating the American penal system. At the same time, Parrot, Tilbot's servant, agrees to accompany Olivier to America, where he is supposed to function as Olivier's protector and secretary, as well as a spy for his hovering mother. In PARROT AND OLIVIER IN AMERICA (PaOiA), Peter Carey examines how opportunity and democracy in Jacksonian America affect the cultured and charmingly observant Olivier and the capable Parrot, who is the equivalent of the modern-day personal assistant.
Peter Carey has based Olivier on Alexis de Tocqueville. In fact, Carey emphasizes on his website that he has threaded Olivier's commentary with excerpts from "Democracy in America," de Tocqueville's masterpiece. Olivier is a great character. He is a French aristocrat, fleeing democracy in his own country but fascinated by its operation in America; a highly cultured Frenchman, who is sometimes hilariously snobbish about American culture and cooking; and a young bachelor who falls in love with Amelia, a natural aristocrat and the daughter of a wealthy Connecticut farmer. Ultimately, Olivier must decide: Can a man with his background and values assimilate in democratic America?
Meanwhile, Parrot, whose real name is John Larritt, arrives in America without a good working relationship with Olivier, his boss. In his long association with Tilbot, Larritt has become skilled in art appraisal and the art business. But, he can serve no equivalent function for Olivier, who simply wants a servant and secretary. In America, Larritt is faced with the challenge of personal reinvention and must ultimately determine if and how America can suit his and his wife's talents.
In telling the story of Parrot and Olivier, Carey uses many narrative devices and issues that exist elsewhere in his oeuvre. This, for example, is my fourth Carey book that features a book within a book. (The others were Jack Maggs, True History of the Kelly Gang, and My Life as a Fake). Meanwhile, themes in PaOiA that are prominent in other Carey novels include fraternal tension and responsibility, absent fathers, fraudulent behavior by artists (Theft: A Love Story), and the mysterious power of love (His Illegal Self). Similar to other Carey novels, PaOiA also has an abundance of sympathetic characters and writing that is brisk and sometimes amazingly lyrical.
Even so, I'd rate PaOiA a notch below Carey's other work. In part, I'd attribute this to the highly coincidental events featuring the character O'Hara, which serve to reunite Parrot and Olivier. I wonder: Are these events a direct reference to de Tocqueville's actual experiences in New York? And, even if they are, why are they necessary?
Also, I'd say that the critical relationships in this novel are men to women--that is Parrot to Mathilde and Olivier to Amelia. In contrast, the relation between Parrot and Olivier, which gets lots of space, was primarily economic and functional. That's certainly okay. But I think Carey strived, but failed, to make that relationship mean more.
Marked up to four stars.
25 of 29 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Hammers or Dolphins?,
Here's a picaresque novel,stuffed full of far-fetched invention and fauviste symbolism: it is an immense pleasure to read.
French aristocrat and English/Australian misfit come together in mutual suspicion and dislike to make a grand tour of the infant democracy which is the America of President Andrew Jackson. Divided by birth, experience and expectations, the two are shown to have more than just their humanity in common: it is their experience in America, both when they are together and when they are apart, that draws them together in final, uncompetitive, friendship.
The writing is extraordinarily vivid, and would be a pleasure, even if the plot of the novel were even less plausible or coherent than it is, and if all the unities came together in the two staves of the improbable duet to which Mr.Carey has so ingeniously set them.
One sentence to give an impression: here is Plymouth Harbour on a dreary day in the 1790s: 'We passed under the noses of the cannons, and the lapping sea was poison mercury beneath the grey sky, chicken guts and potato peels gathering around the towering hulls' - leave out the cannons, and substitute beer cans and crisp packets and you could almost be in Dover ferry port today.
The only people likely to have a problem with this novel are those who know anything about the period or the personalities involved. Mr Carey has provided a thoughtful list of Acknowledgments which admit his substantial debt to the literature surrounding the great Alexis de Toqueville - although, as he ingeniously observes,'a bibliography [is]as useful to the reader of a novel as a hammer is to a dolphin.'
The reader who explores the bibliography will, nonetheless, learn much about the way in which seeds of fact sprout into luxuriant growths of imagination in the mind of the inspired novelist.
Olivier is not de Tocqueville, and Mr Carey is perfectly entitled to make the point that a novel is not a history. And yet... and yet...Mr Carey expressly identifies himself, although modestly, as taking a 'minor place in the back row' of the 'full-throated choir' in the 'world of de Tocqueville' which 'seems to be filled with dissenting voices'. This is delicately, but indirectly put. After all, Mr Carey has quoted from 'Democracy in America' in passages attributed to the fictional Olivier, and in the end, his plebeian counterpart, Parrot, presumes to pass judgment on what looks as though it may be intended to be a summary of the Frenchman's reservations on that subject.
If this is meant to be a judgment on de Toqueville, then it does him less than justice. In a letter to Eugene Stoffels dated 21 February 1835, Toqueville wrote that the question in his mind was not whether attempts at democracy would lead to chaos, anarchy, looting, and murder for he was convinced that democracy might well be achieved in a manner that respected rights, preserved liberties, and respected beliefs.
The question for de Tocqueville was whether the coming democracy would be one that went forward without poetry and grandeur, but with moral order, or a chaotic and debased system, characterised either by frenzied mood swings, or 'subject to an even heavier yoke than those that had been imposed upon mankind since the Fall of the Roman Empire'.
Parrot's Judgment on Olivier is the superficial one of a man who has found in America the fulfilment of a personal dream of liberty, and perhaps it is not altogether impertinent to suggest that one can hear in Mr Carey's voice the complacent tones of a respected ornament of New York City, where, the blurb says, the Australian born novelist has lived for 20 years. It is not that Mr.Carey is unaware of greed, ruthlesness and vulgarity of American culture, for he quotes de Toqueville pointedly on them, and the twists and turns of the plot incorporate them. But in the end, it is the huge energy, variety and optimism of America that seems, for Mr.Carey, to outweigh the negatives.
But the profund implications of de Toqueville's question have not in any way been finally answered. Once asked whether he thought the French Revolution a good thing, Mao's prime minister, Chou En-Lai, sagely observed that 'it was too early say'. Historians who attempt, in due course, to answer the question will have to bear in mind one the one hand, that nazism was a 'popular' movement, 'democratically' elected and energetically supported whilst victorious by a majority of Germans, and, on the other, that western democracies, as they currently exist, are increasingly at the mercy of evil passions whipped up by minorities, pressure groups, and the media; the greed of the banks, corporations, service providers and absolutely everyone who has made money out of property speculation in the last 30 years; the craven subjection of politicians to popular enthusiasms; the continuing debasement of education, culture, and sexual and personal morals; the indifference or contempt in matters of religion; the senseless worship and pointless waste of material resources; and the prostitution in a celebrity ridden culture of all values to popular notions of what is meant by equality.
We might be better off, at least in Europe, with hammers, and not dolphins.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A disappointment after a promising opening,
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Parrot and Olivier In America was a nominee for The 2010 Booker Prize alongside Room, The Long Song, In A Strange Room, C, and winner The Finkler Question. It was the first Peter Carey novel that I had read despite his previous Booker success with Oscar and Lucinda and True History Of The Kelly Gang.
It got off to such a great start and I thought it was really promising. A shadow hangs over the family life of young Olivier, and he eventually discovers that his parents narrowly escaped execution during The French Revolution. He is a pompous, petulant, sickly boy, with parents who are perpetually on edge. I was really engaged by it, and assumed that this would be a book I would enjoy....
Sadly, this proves not to be the case. The novel alternates point-of-view narratives between Olivier and his future man servant Parrot, and it was from Parrot's first chapter onward that the book began to lose me. Overall, I found the narrative verbose, uninteresting and frustrating, and in part without credibility.
There is some humour to be had when Parrot and Olivier first become a duo on account of their clear hatred of each other. And also when Olivier, due to his mother's continued infantilisation of him finds himself shackled to Parrot once they reach America having hoped to be rid of him. I wouldn't say that this small degree of humour would elevate Parrot and Olivier to the status of "comic novel" not in my eyes anyway.
More frustratingly Parrot and Olivier lacks much at all in the way of plot. Even though he is sent to America largely under a false pretext, it seems unlikely that a character such as Olivier would ever be dispatched to research criminal rehabilitative practice but so we must believe. The two seem to travel about the East Coast of America almost pointlessly.
In some respects Parrot and Olivier is a "look at" what happens when "Old World" collides with "New World" try as he might, Olivier can't reconcile his notions of the way the world should work from the point of view of a French aristocrat, to the way things do work in America. Whilst Parrot thrives, Olivier flounders. It is a comment on how the birth of America as a society served to level social class.
The sad thing is, is that a story of the world through the eyes of aristocrats a generation removed from the French Revolution is a really interesting prospect, but instead, Carey creates an examination of the "master/servant relationship" and social class in general, the likes of which has been done before and better. I felt dreadfully let down by a book which got off to such a great start.
I was recently speaking with someone on Twitter about the Booker Prize, and the level of snobbery around it, I venture to say that Parrot and Olivier in America was nominated not for its virtues but so as not to slight twice winner Peter Carey. It's just not much of a good story in the end, and I wouldn't recommend it 5/10
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Carey Parrots de Tocqueville,
Set against the 1830 July Revolution in France, a young, French aristocrat (based on the real-life Alexis de Tocqueville) is dispatched to the emerging USA together with a British servant. Carey's rich, lyrical prose explores the emergence of democracy, attitudes to art and the power of love as these two unlikely companions find their way in America with varying amounts of success.
Olivier de Garmont is a young, French aristocrat who is drugged by the enigmatic Marquis de Tilbot, a close friend of Olivier's monarchist mother, and dispatched to the safety of the emerging United States to avoid the 1830 July Revolution, and the threat of the dreaded guillotine, in his native France. At least nominally his task while there is to prepare a report on the American penal system on behalf of the French government, a task for which he has little interest or indeed talent. Tilbot also dispatches his servant, an older British man, John Larrit, known to everyone as Parrot, to act as Oliver's secretary, servant, translator and to spy on Olivier for both his mother and Tilbot. They are an ill-matched pair, from opposite sides of the social spectrum but in democratic America, this relationship develops in ways that neither of them would expect. The story is told in alternating voices of these two main characters.
As with his successful True History of the Kelly Gang, Peter Carey again uses historical characters and events to inform his story, with Olivier based to varying degrees on the experiences of Alexis de Tocqueville, author of Democracy in America (Wordsworth Classics of World Literature), from which there are excerpts and ideas (what Carey describes as `necklaces of words') scattered throughout Olivier's narrative.
The relationship between them is not unlike the Regency Blackadder series. Olivier is an aristocrat through and through and is bemused by the whole concept of American democracy. Parrot on the other hand is from the school of hard knocks. His life has been a series of unfortunate adventures than, taking him from serving a forger of French currency in Devon, via Australia and back to France before finally ending up with Olivier in America. He's nothing if not street-wise.
Olivier, following Tocqueville, constantly laments the lack of culture in this new land, but will love soften his views and enable him to finally embrace the democratic way? Although more suited to the advantages of the culture, will Parrot ever truly escape his servile relationship with Olivier and Tilbot? Of course, it's more complex than that. Olivier's belief is that art in a democracy will be determined by the market rather than pure. Parrot himself has artistic leanings and friends and family with even more artistic heritage. Carey spends much time on Tocqueville's views about art in a democracy.
It's a story about clashes of culture, the birth of democracy, absent fathers, artistic fraud and temperament, and, ultimately, the strength of love. Significantly, the book which begins in Olivier's voice, ends in Parrot's, perhaps underlying the author's optimism for his adopted homeland.
While the story is basically linear, as Parrot himself admits, the relating of his story in particular is somewhat jumbled and this can be frustrating at times, and it is sometimes difficult to get a sense of the time development of the story. While both Olivier and Parrot have distinctive and convincing voices and you find yourself rooting for each in their own stories which is generally a clear sign of effective characterisation. There are some terrific minor characters as well, some of whom are almost Dickensian in their depiction.
Carey's style continues to be highly lyrical. It's something you will either relish or get frustrated by. Just be prepared for it. In many ways this is unavoidable too since Carey has taken the decision to intersperse some of Alexis de Tocqueville's words into the narrative and the fact that these are largely undetectable indicates how rich and lyrical the rest of the book is.
Where, for me, the book falls down is that there is, at one or two critical junctions in the story, rather too much reliance on coincidence. It's a book where you genuinely don't know what will happen next, so I won't spoil it by explaining where the coincidences arise, but there are a few times where events stretch credibility somewhat, which is a shame.
27 of 33 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not a great introduction to Carey,
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I felt it was an omission on my part not to have read any of the previous novels of Peter Carey, twice winner of the Booker prize, so I was intrigued enough to start his latest Booker shortlisted book `Parrot and Olivier in America'. It is the story of two central 19th century characters, Olivier de Garmont, a young French aristocrat who needs to escape from post revolutionary France; and Parrot who is an older working class Englishman with republican leanings.
They are thrown together in an odd sort of way by Olivier's mother, who wants her son kept an eye on as he travels to America. She makes Parrot a co-signatory of his bank account, which makes for a distinctly unusual master-servant relationship. Some of the differences that Olivier finds when he gets to American are amusingly told, such as the very flexible attitude to class, and the belief that all people can make their way up in the world with no limit put on their success by class.
Carey tells the tale through the words of both men in alternate chapters, which I found slightly confusing and leads to a lack of focus. I am sorry to say that I didn't have much sympathy for either of them as they get in and out of various escapades and scrapes. It is undoubtedly a clever novel, with Olivier's character being loosely based on the French scholar of American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville. I get the feeling that it is trying to be too clever for its own good, and somewhat looses grip on plot and storyline in the process. So not an impressive introduction for me to the work of Peter Carey.
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Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey