About the Book
About the Book
A tour de force of historical improvisation and vocal acrobatics, Peter Carey’s new novel looks at postrevolutionary France and America through the eyes of two unforgettable narrators: Olivier and Parrot. The result is a vivid counterpoint and two wildly divergent perspectives on the same tumultuous period. It is also the story of a most unlikely friendship between a French lord and an English servant.
Olivier de Garmont is the scion of a noble family, Parrot the son of an itinerant printer. As the novel begins, Olivier’s family has retreated to Normandy in the wake of the French Revolution and the Terror of 1793. Olivier is a sickly, sensitive child, and when he stumbles upon an engraving of Louis XVI being beheaded, he is forever after haunted by the guillotine. Olivier grows up to become a lawyer and to develop liberal views that put him at odds with the restored monarchy. To keep him out of harm’s way, his family ships him off to America, where he is tasked to write a book on America’s prison system.
The childhood of John Larrit, also known as Parrot because of his talent for mimicry, is even more perilous. He barely survives when he and his father are rousted out of a printer’s house engaged in producing counterfeit paper money for Monsieur de Tilbot, the one-armed Marquis who fiercely resisted the revolution and who is a close friend of Olivier’s mother. Tilbot saves Parrot but also turns him into his servant, thus beginning a role of deference and self-denial that will ensnare Parrot for many years to come. It is through the Marquis de Tilbot that Olivier and Parrot’s fates will intersect when Olivier’s mother enlists the Marquis, and the Marquis in turn enlists Parrot to protect --- and spy on --- Olivier in America.
Both Parrot and Olivier are profoundly affected by the democratic leveling of class distinctions they find in America. Olivier is alternately repulsed and fascinated, disdainful and admiring of the new democracy, while Parrot, after drifting aimlessly, finally finds the freedom he’s been denied all his life. By showing us their reactions to the fledging democracy, Carey gives readers a visceral sense of just how thrilling and baffling a place America could be for new arrivals from Europe --- and how unsettling of old-world social conventions. The typical relationship between servant and master is gradually subverted as Parrot and Olivier move from mutual contempt to genuine affection and friendship.
The novel is filled with subtle parallels between America in the early decades of the nineteenth century and at the beginning of the twenty-first. Olivier is appalled, for example, by the wanton destruction of America’s Eastern forests and the national obsession with acquiring wealth: “It is strange, in New York and Philadelphia, to see the feverish enthusiasm which accompanies Americans’ pursuit of prosperity and the way they are ceaselessly tormented by the vague fear that they have failed to choose the shortest route to achieve it” (p. 237) --- an observation as accurate today as it was 170 years ago.
Written with Peter Carey’s unmistakable narrative brilliance, Parrot and Olivier in America is a historical novel in the best sense of the term, in that it inhabits a historical era with utter accuracy and authenticity but in doing so holds a mirror up to our time as well.