August 23, 2017

Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey

Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter CareyOur first bookclub choice of 2012 – Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey, which was shortlisted for the 2010 Booker Prize.

The book is built on alternate chapters written from the view point of each character – we start with Olivier. I could have given up after the first chapter, Olivier is not an engaging character and fairly tedious. The second chapter (Parrot’s) had me gripped though – and these 2 different styles reflect the 2 characters perfectly.

We start off with both men’s start in the world – one (Olivier) a French noble, and Parrot a working class boy from Devon. As the whole story is set in the eigthteenth century there’s an awful lot going on – and at certain points I really wished I remembered more about the key points of the build up to the French Revolution.

The two are thrown together by events and travel to America for Olivier’s safety. There is much more to the book than simply two men getting to know and trust each other. There’s a huge amount here about how society changed during this time – how the class divisions began to be ripped apart, and we see that from many many different perspectives.

There’s also a lot about how a new society establishes itself as our characters travel around America.

Generally I enjoyed the book, I’m quite pleased to have read it – but I know I won’t be picking it up again. And the ending was a little flat.

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

The English Patient by Michael OndaatjeBefore I say anything else about The English Patient – I haven’t seen the film – so I’m coming at it from a “pure” point of view. (might have to watch it now though!).

The book has 4 key characters:

  • Hana the nurse
  • The English patient
  • Caravaggio the thief and spy
  • Kip the sapper

Having now finished the book – I’m not sure which one of them it’s about. Hence I’m intrigued to watch the film to see if that makes it any clearer for me.

It’s also a tough review to write because it’s difficult to not reveal a plot twist, or anything key whilst still explaining a bit about the book.

So the novel is set in a villa in rural Italy just as the second world war is coming to an end. Each of the characters is slowly added to the mix, and even more slowly reveal who they are to each other and to the reader. I do like that about the book, you definitely get the sense of how at that point in time a lot of people had lost themselves and didn’t know how to define themselves. It’s quite an otherworldly setting / set of experiences; a group of people hiding from the end of the war.

It takes a surprisingly long time for them to start talking to each other (in any meaningful way). About half way through the book we leave the tale of the four inhabitants of the villa and take a journey to before the war and the reminiscences of the English patient. Spending some time in the African deserts with him as he maps it and his involvement with the Geographical Society. There’s some great detail here, and then all of a sudden we’re learning about his affair with a colleague’s wife – Kathryn.

After this point in the book Caravaggio comes up with a theory about the identify of the English patient (he’s burned beyond recognition, and doesn’t seem to know who he is). So he starts trying to unravel the truth – which leads to some quite impressive methadone useage.

We now switch to learning about Kip and his fascinating history learning about bomb disposal in England. A detailed and heartful story.

Then it’s back to the villa for a mad game of hide and seek (must re-read this bit as I think I may have missed something important), that leads to more methadone and a really interesting section where Caravaggio and the English patient get wasted together (sorry but that’s what they do) and we find our about the EP’s past.

The book ends many years later with Kip in his new life reminiscing about what the others might have ended up doing.

I think I’m going to pondering The English Patient for some time – it’s a strange mix of the obtuse, fanciful, harsh and technical – that somehow works really well.

I’d definitely recommend this one.