Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda is a tall story, as elaborate and fantastical as any of the yarns spun by the trickster hero of his last novel Illywhacker. For one thing, it's a family history, and we're all of us secretly stunned by the coincidences which have resulted, against the odds, in our existence. And the narrator's account of his great-grandfather, the Reverend Oscar Hopkins, is, by any standards, a weird one. It begins in Devon, with a Christmas pudding snatched from the child's lips by his harsh Plymouth Brethren father. It ends - as a direct consequence of that pudding - half a world away in 1866, as Oscar sits, ill and miserable, in a glass church drifting on barges down a remote Australian river. He's there because of a wager with Lucinda Leplastrier whom he loves - and who will not be the narrator's great-grandmother. The church itself is airily beautiful, a 'crystal-pure bat-winged structure', the product of years of dreaming. It's also a folly, quite unsuited to the climate, already battered and twisted and cracked. And it's heavy: made of 'thirty hundredweight of cast-iron rods, five hundred and sixty-two glass sheets weighing two pounds each, twenty gross of nuts and bolts, sixty pounds of putty, five gallons of linseed oil'. The miserable effort needed to transport it across the trackless bush causes more than one death.
LRB 21 April 1988 | PDF Download