Oscar and Lucinda: Peter Carey

A glassworks factory bought on a whim, and a trip to the other end of the world made on the toss of a coin: chance is the driver of most of the major events in this book.

Oscar and Lucinda is a strange love story set mostly in Australia in the mid-1800s. It is coincidence that brings together Oscar—a thin awkward man with unruly red hair, “tall and stretched, with a long, twisting neck”, and knees that click when he runs—and Lucinda, a small, controlled and fiercely independent young woman. 

Lucinda grows up on a farm in New South Wales, Australia. Her father dies when she is quite young, and she is raised by her mother. Before she dies, her mother makes sure that the farm is divided up and sold, leaving Lucinda a wealthy young woman. Lucinda moves to Sydney, where she buys a decrepit glass factory on the spur of the moment. She also discovers a taste for gambling.

Oscar meanwhile grows up in England. His mother dies when he is a child, and he is brought up by his father, a stern preacher who does not believe in celebrating Christmas. Their new maid is appalled when she finds out that the boy has never tasted a Christmas pudding so she bakes him one on the sly. The father walks in to find his son eating it and knocks it out of his mouth. This changes everything, and eventually Oscar leaves home to become an Anglican priest, to his father’s despair.

Oscar also discovers a love of gambling, and as a man of the cloth, he sees it as heavenly guidance. So when he is debating whether he should face his horror of vast expanses of water to travel to New South Wales, he tosses a coin and follows its dictates without hesitation. It is on the boat that he meets Lucinda, who is returning from a trip to England. The two recognize in each other someone who is different, who is out of them with their times. That, and their shared love of gambling.

Lucinda dreams of constructing a glass cathedral, and Oscar decides to take it further, literally, which leads to the cathedral being transported from Sydney to a small town over uncharted terrain. Through this crazy venture, Oscar tries to prove his love for Lucinda, and Lucinda, in a deal with fate to keep Oscar safe, places a bet on the trip’s success. The way it plays out isn’t quite what either of them is expecting.

Peter Carey paints a real sense of what life must have been like in Australia in the mid-19th century. Through Oscar and Lucinda, who defy convention in their own ways, he says a lot about the social mores and the position of women. Lucinda, as the owner of a factory, is a woman in a man’s world. The supervisor discourages her from paying unexpected visits because “it upsets the men”. She is only invited once her employees think she has found a man of her own, and although she is the owner, he is the one they talk to.

The story is narrated by a great-grandchild, which does not really work and could have been dropped without the book losing much. The only thing this device does is to highlight the role that hazard plays in our lives.

What stood out for me were the two main characters, Oscar and Lucinda. Even though I found myself getting exasperated with them, I was rooting for them. They are both so vividly drawn that I know that they will stay with me for a long time. And so will the image of the glass cathedral, which says so much about the power and the fragility of dreams.

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