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Peter Carey: Oscar and Lucinda

The image that stays in my mind from this book is the glass church on the boat going up the river but I am jumping the gun a bit. We start with Oscar Hopkins, in England, son of a Plymouth Brethren minister. One Christmas Day, when Oscar is fourteen, the new servant, who was an Anglican, serves Oscar Christmas pudding – the flesh of which idols eat, in the view of his father. His father catches him eating the fruit of Satan and hits him, so Oscar defects to the Anglicans, specifically to Oscar’s father’s rival the Reverend Hugh Stratton. Lucinda Leplastrier, who receives a doll as a present and then accidentally destroys it while trying to improve its hair, is punished by her mother for deed. This might explain why both become gamblers. Oscar starts betting on horse races while at school, while Lucinda becomes a card player. And finally they meet – on board ship.

Lucinda is by now a lonely heiress and Oscar an Anglican priest. It is their gambling that brings them together but it is the religion of Oscar – even though he is defrocked – and Lucinda’s glass works that combine to form the stunning image of the glass church (you can see it on the cover of the book as well as in the film). The glass church is transported across inhospitable terrain (somewhat like the boat in Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo) to bring religion to the aborigines, who get a very sympathetic hearing in this book. Another fine book from Carey, who allies Victorian commerce and religion with both current political concerns (women’s liberation, treatment of the aborigines) and his own wonderful gift for creating exotic portraits of those at the margins of society.

Publishing history

First published 1997 by Faber and Faber