Tuesday, February 16, 2010

322. Oscar and Lucinda - Peter Carey

History: This book was published in 1988.
Plot: Oscar Hopkins is a contradictory man, both pious and corrupt. He was raised by a strict, religious father, but he abandons his father's religion in favor of Anglicanism. He spends the rest of his life wondering if his decision has damned his soul to hell, as his father believes. Oscar further endangers his soul when he takes up gambling while in divinity school. Oscar justifies his vice by philosophizing that believing in God is a gamble anyway. How could God condemn a man for having a bit of fun at the racetrack? Locked in an inner conflict between his fears of damnation and his need to gamble, Oscar decides that a little suffering might go a long way towards redeeming him in God's eyes. He decides to face his crippling fear of the water and sail to Sydney, where he intends to devote his life to dangerous missionary work in the wild badlands of Australia. On board the ship, he meets his counterpart and fellow compulsive gambler, Lucinda Leplastrier.
Lucinda is a feminist ahead of her time in the Victorian era. She is shunned by society for her independent views and refusal to wear dresses with corsets. The rich heiress owns a glassworks factory in Sydney, which her male employees will not let her enter without permission. Lucinda is returning to Sydney from a year-long sojourn in London, where she had hoped to find a husband. However, London society shuns her more cruelly than Sydney society.
She returns home, where her weakness for gambling and cards destroys the reputations of the only two men who dare to befriend her, Oscar and Reverend Dennis Hasset, a fellow glass enthusiast. Hasset is sent up-river to a parish in the wilderness by the Bishop of Sydney as punishment for his friendship with Lucinda. Oscar is kicked out of the church entirely by the Bishop when the local press discovers his late night card games with Lucinda. Lucinda feels responsible for Oscar's downfall and takes him into her home. There, the two misfits eventually become friends, and he learns to share her love for glass. Their unmarried, though chaste, cohabitation causes an even bigger scandal in society, but they take refuge in their growing love for one another. Their lack of social skills prevents them from acknowledging that they are in love, but their shared love of glass and gambling spurs them to bet their entire fortunes on a venture to build a glass church. Oscar nobly agrees to deliver the church to Hasset's wilderness parish in an act of love for Lucinda, whom he imagines to be in love with Hasset.
Although love proves to be the ultimate gamble for Oscar and Lucinda, the story never strays too far from the terrible possibility that even the most thunderstruck lovers can remain isolated in parallel lives.
Review: There shouldn't be, on the face of it, anything unconventional about Oscar Hopkins or Lucinda Leplastrier. Between the two of them they represent the Church and Capitalist Enterprise, the twin bulwarks of Victorian society. Oscar is an Oxford-educated, High Anglican priest, while Lucinda, the inheritor of a substantial fortune, is the proprietor of one of the colony's pioneering glassworks factories. And yet they gamble.
For Oscar--a slight, otherworldly, figure given to visions and transports of divine ecstacy--gambling reveals itself as a schema for tracing the arbitrariness of Divine Grace. Invoking Pascal's metaphor of the "necessary gamble", he concludes that faith is itself a die thrown on the chance of the Omnipotent's existence. It is all a bit too much for the colonials. Oscar and Australia prove to be a terrible match. It is a reckless convicts’ land with a strange puritanical streak. He is the opposite paradox, a bookish parson with a mad thirst for gambling. Very quickly, he turns out to entirely, absurdly, out of place in Sydney--in the way a man can only be in his home.
For Lucinda, his companion in games of chance, gambling is rebellion. She plays cards for money because she shouldn't; it is a way for a proud, independent woman to defy the conventions of colonial society. From Lucinda's love of chance, comes an obsession with glass--a substance which, in its protean variety, its sensitivity to myriad combinations of light, colour and lightness, seems to embody the beauty of a life irradiated by chance and discovery. With gambling and glass, Oscar and Lucinda soon start to test the extent and meaning of Australia's "good luck". After all, the foundation of modern Australia was not an episode of universal good fortune. For the
native Aboriginals, it was an event of monumental bad luck, that led to centuries of murder, persecution, and continuing immiseration. Carey's heroes are alive to the way that blacks were abused in early Australia--so often ground like the mortar needed for the nation's construction. Lucinda feels she does not deserve her wealth because it was robbed from the natives, and Oscar protests in vain while blacks are massacred. Their refusal to accept conventional racism, is a give-away that they are not gamblers like everyone else--they take it too earnestly, too religiously.
Colonial Sydney might be besotted with gambling, but only as a concession to the dominance of rigid, antique codes of living. An illicit hand in a Chinese den at sundown compensates for a life in which the outcomes are always the same: injustice for blacks, suppression for women, ridicule for innovators. But gambling is another game entirely for Oscar and Lucinda, an expression of their desire for real change and reformation. In that sense, gambling is also an expression of their innocence. The walls of social obstruction rises around them with fatal inevitability, and the two toss everything on one fantastic, final wager: to transport a glass church across the continent to an isolated missionary outpost.
This book was awful reading. The story itself was not even interesting, and the sentences did not make sense, and were mixed up in each paragraph, almost on purpose just to confuse.
Opening Line: "If there was a bishop, my mother would have him to tea."
Closing Line: "And when the long-awaited white fingers of water tapped and tapped on Oscar's lips, he welcomed them in as he always had, with a scream, like a small boy caught in the sheet-folds of a nightmare."
Quotes: "The look was soft and pleading. It did not belong in that hard, black-bearded face, did not suit the tone of voice. Oscar knew this look. He had seen it before. It was a will-o'-the-wisp. If you tried to run towards it, it retreated; if you embraced it, it turned to distance in your arms. You could not hold it, that soft and lovely center in his father's feelings."
Rating: Awful.

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