Peter Carey (1943-)

Carey worked as an advertising copywriter and at various other odd jobs in Australia and England until 1988, when he became a full-time writer. His collections of short stories, The Fat Man in History (1974; U.K. title, Exotic Pleasures) and War Crimes (1979), exhibited many grotesque and macabre elements. His novels Bliss (1981), Illywhacker (1985), and Oscar and Lucinda (1988) were more realistic, though Carey used black humor throughout all three. The later novels were based on the history of Australia, especially its founding and early days. Carey received the 1988 Booker Prize for Oscar and Lucinda.

("Carey, Peter (Philip)." Merriam Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature, Merriam-Webster, 1995.).


Peter Carey "has built a distinguished career out of offbeat, risk-taking novels," according to Time critic Paul Gray. An Australian writer, Carey has earned substantial recognition for his quirky, inventive fiction, including several volumes of short stories and his highly acclaimed novels, including Illywhacker,Oscar and Lucinda,Jack Maggs,True History of the Kelly Gang, and Parrot and Olivier in America. Carey is a two-time winner of England's prestigious Booker Prize, and his fiction spans the gamut from historical tales to mythical adventures and surreal speculations. Jules Smith, in an evaluation of the writer for the Contemporary Writers Web site, observed: "Carey was part of a generation of Australian writers who moved away from realism towards international models; by his own account he was first influenced by William Faulkner and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. His work's hybrid mixing of fable, satire and fantasy can now be seen as akin to postcolonial novelists such as Salman Rushdie, Timothy Mo and Michael Ondaatje." Smith added: "What gives it distinction, though, is the distorting mirror it holds up to Australia, telling surreal stories about its development and place in the contemporary world."

Born in a small Australian town, with parents who ran the local car dealership, Carey was not a likely candidate to become an internationally recognized novelist, perhaps even a contender for the Nobel Prize for literature. In a Paris Review Online interview with Radhika Jones, Carey noted that he did not even tell his parents at first that he was writing. "I got a job in advertising. So even though I was writing, I was always supporting myself. That's the thing that would matter for my father, who was absolutely a creature of the Great Depression. He would worry every time I got a raise. He'd think, Well, Peter can't be worth all that money, he'll be the first to be fired. When I finally began to publish, my father never read my work. He'd say, Oh, that's your mother's sort of thing. But my mother found the books rather upsetting. ... My sister was the only one who read me." One element in his intellectual and emotional growth as a youth was being sent off to the prestigious Geelong Grammar School as an eleven-year-old, a school that the young Prince Charles attended. Carey had early dreams of being an organic chemist, and at university he studied zoology, but as he further told Jones, he was merely "faking" it. Leaving university in 1962 without a degree, he went into advertising by accident--a happy serendipity, for it was in this environment that he began mingling with people who talked about art and books. It was in the advertising firm that his "education really began," as Carey further noted. He read widely in fiction and poetry. By 1964, he had also begun writing, producing an early novel. Marrying for the first time, he traveled to England and produced another novel. Publishers showed interest, but these went unpublished. Back in Australia, he got another job at an advertising agency and started writing short stories. Publication of these ultimately led to his success in novels.

In his first short-story collection, The Fat Man in History, Carey presents a matter-of-fact perspective on bizarre and occasionally grotesque subjects. Included in this book are "Conversations with Unicorns," in which the narrator recalls his various encounters with the extraordinary creatures, and "American Dreams," in which a clerk succumbs to madness and isolates himself from his community. Upon his death, townspeople discover that while he was in seclusion he constructed a model of their village. More gruesome are "Peeling," in which a character's quirky obsession results in a surreal mutilation, and "Withdrawal," in which the protagonist is a necrophiliac dealer of corpses and severed limbs. Among the curious figures in this tale is a pig who becomes dependent on narcotics after consuming an addict's excrement.

The publication of The Fat Man in History quickly established Carey as an important figure in Australian literature. Carl Harrison-Ford wrote in Stand that Carey's first work is "the succes d'estime of 1974," and Bruce Bennett declared in World Literature Written in English that "Carey's first collection of stories ... stamps him as the major talent among ... new writers." Bennett found similarities between Carey's work and that of Kurt Vonnegut and Evelyn Waugh, but he added that "the shaping imagination is Carey's own."

Equally unique is War Crimes, Carey's second collection of stories. The volume includes such vividly bizarre accounts as "The Chance," the tale of a man who vainly attempts to dissuade his lover from entering a lottery in which the major prize is a repulsive body. In the similarly disturbing title piece, a hippie-turned-businessman kills people who are threatening his profits from frozen-food sales. Like Carey's first collection, War Crimes became immensely popular in Australia, and it received the New South Wales Premier's Literary Award in 1979.

In 1981 Carey published his first novel, Bliss. In keeping with his short stories, Bliss is fairly surreal, rendering the bizarre as if it were the norm. The novel's protagonist is Harry Joy, an overworked advertising executive who suffers a near-fatal heart attack. After recovering from the heart attack and equally life-threatening open-heart surgery, Joy believes that he is in hell. He discovers that his wife is compromising him with a close friend and that his seemingly lethargic son is actually a freewheeling drug dealer who forces his sister to commit incest in return for drugs. Joy eventually forsakes his family for Honey Barbara, a worldly nature lover who supports herself as a drug dealer and prostitute. Around the time that he befriends the charge-card-accommodating prostitute, Joy also discovers that his advertising company maintains a map indicating cancer density for the area, with accountability traced to the company's clients. Aghast, Joy renounces his work and grows more remote from his family. Eventually, his wife has him committed to a mental institution, where he once again meets Honey Barbara, who has also been incarcerated. Together they escape to her home in a rain forest, where Joy finally finds happiness and fulfillment before meeting an unfortunate demise.

With Bliss, Carey gained further acclaim from American and British reviewers. In British Book News, for example, Neil Philip referred to Bliss as "a rich, rewarding novel: crisply written, daringly conceived, brilliantly achieved," while in Washington Post Book World, Judith Chettle wrote that Carey's novel possesses "all the virtues of a modern fable." For Chettle, Carey is "a writer of power and imagination." Even more impressed was Spectator critic Francis King. "In both the breadth of his vision of human life, in all its misery and happiness, and in the profundity of his insight into moral dilemmas," wrote King, "Mr. Carey makes the work of most of our 'promising' young and not so young novelists seem tinselly and trivial."

In 1985 Carey published his second novel, Illywhacker, a wide-ranging comic work about Herbert Badgery, a 139-year-old trickster and liar. Badgery's life, which parallels the development of Australia following its independence from England, is full of odd adventures, including stints as a pilot, car salesman, and snake handler. His accounts of his escapades, however, are not entirely reliable, and over the course of the novel's 600 pages Badgery often revels in tomfoolery and good-natured treachery. He is hardly the novel's only unusual figure: Molly MaGrath maintains her sanity by periodically shocking herself with an "invigorator belt"; Emma, Badgery's daughter-in-law, lives in a lizard's cage; and an entire village proves gullible enough to cooperate with Badgery in his hastily organized plan to build an Australian airplane. By the novel's end, Badgery has recounted many more mad schemes and regaled the reader with recollections of seemingly countless eccentrics.

Illywhacker impressed many critics. In Encounter, D.J. Taylor called Illywhacker "a dazzling and hilarious book," describing the narrative as "a vast, diffuse plot chock-full of luminous characters and incidents." Curt Suplee, who reviewed the novel in Washington Post Book World, recommended it as "huge and hugely rewarding" and added that it is a "rare and valuable" work. Howard Jacobson, writing in the New York Times Book Review, considered the book to be "a big, garrulous, funny novel, touching, farcical, and passionately bad-tempered." Jacobson also found Illywhacker a uniquely Australian work and contended that the experience of reading it was nearly the equivalent of visiting Australia.

Carey's third novel, Oscar and Lucinda, is an extraordinary tale of two compulsive gamblers. The work begins in Victorian England, where young Oscar endures life under the rigid rule of his intimidating preacher father. Later, Oscar breaks from his father and joins the conventional Anglican Church, which he serves as a clergyman. Lucinda, meanwhile, has been raised in Australia by her mother, an intellectual who maintains the farm inherited from her late husband. Upon her mother's death, Lucinda profits from the farm's sale. She also becomes the owner of a glassworks and consequently devises the construction of a glass cathedral. Eventually, Oscar and Lucinda meet on a ship, where Lucinda reveals her obsession with gambling. Together, Oscar and Lucinda commence an extensive gambling excursion through Australia while simultaneously attempting to spread Christianity throughout the still-wild country.

Oscar and Lucinda received the 1988 Booker Prize. Beryl Bainbridge, writing in the New York Times Book Review, was particularly impressed with the portions devoted to Oscar's traumatic childhood, though she added that the remaining episodes are "racy with characters, teeming with invention and expressed in superlative language." Bainbridge also declared that Carey shared with Thomas Wolfe "that magnificent vitality, that ebullient delight in character, detail and language that turns a novel into an important book." Also enthusiastic was Los Angeles Times reviewer Carolyn See, who wrote: "There's so much richness here. The sweetness of the star-crossed lovers. The goodness within the stifled English clergyman. The perfect irrationality of human behavior as it plays itself out in minor characters."

Carey returned to writing about modern-day life with his fourth novel, The Tax Inspector, which describes four apocalyptic days in the life of the Catchprice family, proprietors of a crumbling auto dealership in a slummy suburb of Sydney, Australia. "Light-years beyond the merely dysfunctional, they're the Beverly Hillbillies on bad acid," stated Francine Prose in the New York Times Book Review. "The Catchprices are the sort of people you'd rather read about than spend time with." Granny Frieda Catchprice is a tough, half-senile widow who carries explosives in her pocketbook; her middle-aged daughter, Cathy, still dreams of leaving the family business to become a country-western singer; Cathy's brother Mort seems mild-mannered and harmless but has cruelly abused his two sons, as he himself was abused by Granny's late husband. One of Mort's children, sixteen-year-old Benny, listens religiously to "self-actualization" tapes until he comes to believe that he is an angel.

Suspecting that her children are about to put her in a nursing home, Granny reports them to the Australian Taxation Office, which sends Maria Takis--an unmarried, pregnant tax collector--to investigate. Maria's sympathy for Granny draws her into the Catchprices' malevolent vortex. "To summarize the novel's characters or its twisted plot is to risk making the book sound simply cartoonish, quirky and grotesque," warned Prose. "In fact, there's something extremely likable about all this, and especially about the way Mr. Carey gives the combative Catchprices great complexity and depth." Prose asserted that eventually, "the black hole these people call home" is transformed into "a dark mirror for the larger world outside."

Carey's next novel, The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, is a sprawling tale set in the imaginary country of Efica--a tiny island nation colonized and exploited by Voorstand, a huge world power. Carey supplies a rich background for Efica, including a glossary of Efican dialect. The plot is typically convoluted, involving the Eficans' struggle to retain their own cultural identity. The Voorstanders attack that identity with a high-tech, semireligious entertainment spectacle known as the Sirkus. The featured players in the Sirkus--Broder Mouse, Oncle Duck, and Hairy Man--bear more than a passing resemblance to three icons of the Walt Disney empire, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy. The story is narrated by Tristan Smith, whose mother belongs to a radical theater group determined to resist the influence of the Sirkus. Hideously deformed at birth, Tristan finally finds love and acceptance after disguising himself in an electronic Broder Mouse costume.

Writing in the Chicago Tribune, Douglas Glover found this novel "at once bizarre, comic and nauseating, ... a deeply melancholy book about the Australia of the human heart. ... Disturbing, wildly original and terribly sad, The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith is a book about the place where nation, myth and the personal intersect." Remarking on the novel's themes and relation to contemporary society, Michael Heyward stated in the New Republic: "If all the world is not a stage now but a theme park, we really are destined to become the residents of Voorstand and Efica. Could there be anything worse, Carey seems to be asking, than a situation in which practically everyone espoused the values of mass culture, especially in societies that did not create them?" The novel's driving force, Heyward continued, is "the savage irony of the provincial who has learned that the metropolis is merely a larger and more powerful province than his own." Washington Post contributor Carolyn See was also enthusiastic, declaring that "Peter Carey has attempted to do about 100 things in this very ambitious novel and--if I'm correct--has about a 90 percent success rate. This, combined with his always magical, absolutely lovable narrative voice, makes The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith an important contribution to contemporary fiction."

After a foray into children's literature with The Big Bazoohley in 1995, Carey published another major historical novel, Jack Maggs, in 1998. In this work, Carey has the audacity to rework the Charles Dickens classic Great Expectations with a decidedly Australian twist. Carey's protagonist, Jack Maggs, is a variation on Abel Magwitch, the Australian convict from Dickens's novel. Carey narrates the adventures of the exiled man, who has in the meantime become a wealthy landowner in Australia, upon his return to England, where he has come to seek out his long-lost son. In the process he becomes involved with a young writer and mesmerist, Tobias Oates, who is a representation of Dickens himself.

Critics praised Jack Maggs for being a page-turner and a richly documented historical novel, as well as a clever postmodern comment on the Dickensian literary tradition. New York Times Book Review critic Caryn James wrote that the novel's "bright 19th-century surface masks a world-weary 20th-century heart. The novel transforms Dickens's characters and his London into a fable about class, national identity and art." A Booklist contributor found the novel's melodramatic conclusion "gripping ... in the classic Dickens manner," while James described it as surprisingly sentimental, seemingly "rigged by Carey to reinforce Maggs's Australian identity."

Carey won his second Booker Prize in 2001 with True History of the Kelly Gang, "a dazzling imaginative re-creation of the life of a bushranger and Australian folk hero, Ned Kelly," according to a reviewer for the Economist. "It takes the form of an apologia," the reviewer added, "written by Ned for the future benefit of his (wholly fictitious) daughter." The novel "cocks the ear like a pistol with its mesmerizing, dialect-driven narration," wrote a contributor to Library Journal. Recalling the tall tales of Illywhacker and Oscar and Lucinda, as well as the Dickensian overtones of Jack Maggs, Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang is "bolder and more challenging than anything he has tried before," according to Anthony Quinn in the New York Times. Quinn felt that Carey's novel is not "merely a historical novel; it's a fully imagined act of historical impersonation."

Ned Kelly confesses all in the pages of the novel, outlining a life every bit as full of adventure as that of America's Jesse James, and related with verve and edge. It is purportedly drawn from thirteen parcels the outlaw left behind, and in it the territory of northeastern Victoria in Australia of the 1860s and 1870s is drawn with precision. Born of immigrant stock, Ned grows up adoring his mother, a hot-tempered woman who has no love for the police. Ned wonders throughout his youth about his father's convict past in Ireland. Mocked at school for his poverty, Ned is soon apprenticed "under duress," according to Quinn, to a bushranger, and essentially kidnapped into a life of crime. When he escapes and returns to his mother, he discovers it is she who sold him into service to begin with. Between spells in prison as a teen, Ned turns his hand to horse stealing and then to bank robbing, founding the Kelly gang with his brother and two friends. Ned plays Robin Hood, as well, and it is for his more selfless deeds that he has gone down in Australian folk history. Quinn noted that once Ned turns rebel, "it becomes impossible for us not to saddle up and ride with him to his terminus as tragic hero," hanged at twenty-five. Quinn concluded that Carey has "transformed sepia legend into brilliant, even violent, color, and turned a distant myth into warm flesh and blood. Packed with incident, alive with comedy and pathos," Carey's book "contains pretty much everything you could ask for of a novel. It is an adjectival wonder."

Other reviewers shared Quinn's glowing appreciation of True History of the Kelly Gang. "Carey has fashioned a prose marvel," wrote Book reviewer Jeff Ousborne, while the critic for the Economist felt that Carey "has found a convincing voice for his hero" and presents a "fully rounded character that we can believe in and--his obvious failings notwithstanding--sympathize with wholeheartedly." Newsweek critic Malcolm Jones noted that it is the "best measure" of Carey's novel that the reader does not worry about the historical veracity of his tale for more than a page of the adventures. "This act of literary ventriloquism is so adroit that you never doubt that it's Kelly's own words you're reading in the headlong, action-packed story," Malcolm declared. "Thanks to Peter Carey's power and skill as a novelist, Ned Kelly's story now has a chance of being heard, if not believed, by the world," remarked David Coad in World Literature Today. For Coad, "Carey's Kelly is convincing, captivating, and one cannot but be impressed by the author's attention to detail." "Historical fiction doesn't get much better than this," raved Dori DeSpain in School Library Journal.

With his next two novels, My Life as a Fake and Theft: A Love Story, Carey creates two twisting tales of the artistic world. In the former, the author adapts a real-life 1944 case of literary fraud to his own purposes. The original facts involved two men named Harold Stewart and James McCauley, who convinced the editor of a Melbourne literary journal to publish the brilliant poems of the previously undiscovered Ern Malley, who never actually existed; the hoax was eventually discovered, but even so, the poems of Ern Malley can still be found in respected literary anthologies. Carey's version takes on a more surrealistic form when Christopher Chubb invents the writer Bob McCorkle, a brilliant working-class poet whose verses somehow outshine Chubb's own. In a bizarre twist, McCorkle takes on human form and kidnaps Chubb's daughter, thus claiming the youth that his creator, Chubb, denied him. Chubb sets out on a desperate search throughout the world to find his daughter, and it is during that search that editor Sarah Wode-Douglas of the magazine Modern Review finds him and tries to convince him to let her publish McCorkle's works. Richard Lacayo, writing for Time, praised the novel as "a nimble revision of the Malley episode." "There's lots in My Life as a Fake for scholars to have fun with--questions about identity and authenticity and the cultural anxieties of a colonial society," commented Michael Gorra in the Atlantic Monthly, who added: "This is a fabulous book in the original sense of the term--and in the other one, too." In a New Yorker assessment, novelist John Updike judged the work to be "so confidently brilliant, so economical yet lively in its writing, so tightly fitted and continuously startling in its plot that something, we feel, must be wrong with it," yet other than sensing that the novel "ends in a bit of a rush," Updike found few flaws in My Life as a Fake.

Theft is set in the art world and is more a complaint against those who profit from artists' work than about art itself. Michael Boone is a has-been artist; once considered a brilliant, rising star as a painter, he feels he still possesses talent but has been rejected by the art world. As the novel opens, he earns money house sitting and takes care of his mentally impaired brother, Hugh, a character who reminded several critics of Lenny in John Steinbeck's novel Of Mice and Men. When Boone meets Marlene, the daughter-in-law of the famous late artist Jacques Liebovitz, his life takes an interesting turn. Marlene is seen by the art world as an authority on Liebovitz and is consulted to verify the authenticity of the great painter's works. She convinces Boone to take part in an elaborate ruse by promising to help his career, and what ensues, according to an Economist critic, is "a marvellous caper, a wicked little love story and a fine mockery of an industry that probably deserves it." Spectator contributor Sebastian Smee added that Theft "has a swarming, improvised quality which besieges and easily overwhelms objections, including any reluctance to credit his convoluted, sometimes outlandish plots."

Carey returned to his native Australia during the 2000 Olympics after a seventeen-year absence--most of which was spent in New York--in order to write the second volume of Bloomsbury's "The Writer and the City" series. The result is 30 Days in Sydney: A Wildly Distorted Account, a "desultory, impressionistic love letter to the city," according to a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. "While other travelogues may provide more information," the reviewer continued, "this effort will leave more lasting impressions."

Similarly, Brad Hooper wrote in Booklist that the "impressions [Carey] imparts are both meaningful and indelible." Gary Krist, reviewing the book in the New York Times, noted that the author unfolds his book in many forms, "through arguments, dreams, anecdotes and tirades." Krist concluded that Carey "is remarkably fair to the city he left years ago, acknowledging that the forces that shaped it have produced both monstrosities ... and triumphs."

Carey completed another nonfiction work, Wrong about Japan: A Father's Journey with His Son, in 2005. Here he relates his efforts to bond with his preteen son, Charley, who is obsessed with anime, manga, and other aspects of Japanese pop culture, by taking him on a trip to Japan. As the title indicates, Carey's many Western notions about what Japanese culture means are taken to task, and he finds it difficult to even define what the Japanese themselves feel about it. Perhaps his problem is in wrongly assuming that the Japanese, unlike Americans, have a homogenous culture understood by all those who live there. He is also surprised to find that, as with American capitalism, much of the pop culture is designed to sell merchandise; for example, when querying one artist about a cartoon, which Carey thinks contains some symbolism involving World War II, he is told instead that the cartoon was made to sell toy robots.

"Wrong about Japan scratches the surface of Japanese history, anime and manga. Experts may find it lacking," commented Susanna Jones in the New Statesman, but she also observed: "At its heart is a gentle but constant struggle between father and son." A Kirkus Reviews writer declared the book to be a "thoughtful, sensitive exploration of contemporary Japanese culture."

Carey's novel His Illegal Self, which was published in 2008, is a politically charged work that appears extremely timely given the issues that are most frequently highlighted in the news and the headlines, but that also addresses more intimate issues. Set in 1972 during the height of the Vietnam protests, the book features seven-year-old Che Selkirk, who is being raised by his wealthy grandmother in New York City, as his parents, a pair of radicals, are being sought by the FBI for their association with the Students for a Democratic Society, a group that has grown less verbal and more violent over time. Che has no memory of his father, and the last time he recalls seeing his mother he was just two years old, at which point she gave up custody of him in the wake of an arrest for bank robbery. However, when his mother reappears one day, years later, Che recognizes her and allows her to lure him away from the safety of his home and into a life with her on the run, certain that they are on their way to meet up with his father. At almost eight years old, Che still clings to the idea of the family unit and of his mother as a nurturing figure, two concepts that she slowly disabuses him of despite having returned for him. Instead of Mom, she requests that he call her Dial, maintaining a level of distance between them. They travel across the country, staying in fleabag motels, picking up a stray kitten along the way even though Dial is barely able to care for herself and Che, as well as a man named Trevor, who adds an additional level of menace to the book. There is also some lingering doubt as to whether she is who she claims to be, strengthened by the question as to whether a true, loving mother would really kidnap her own child out of a safe and loving environment only to put his life and well-being in danger. The reader begins to wonder if she is actually the boy's mother or just the messenger sent to fetch him on her behalf.

Che and Dial eventually end up at a commune in Queensland, Australia, a harsh, dangerous place where the landscape is filled with endless opportunities for a young boy to get into serious trouble. Nor is the commune itself a collection of loving characters, as constant squabbles over leadership and a certain level of paranoia seem to have infested the group. Yet the relationship between Che and Dial shifts over the course of their travels, with Che's sheer physicality and neediness breaking down some of the emotional barriers that Dial has placed between them. Dial's love for him, though it might be of an unconventional nature not normally associated with the nurturing and protective tendencies of a mother, begins to reveal itself as she appreciates Che's heartfelt hugs and struggles with her own decision to take him from his grandmother and plunge him into this difficult, precarious life that she leads. Che, however, is an intelligent and observant little boy, and as he eventually begins to learn more and more about his situation, his suspicions regarding Dial and her intentions begin to grow. Eventually Dial is revealed to be Anna Xenos, a professor who indulged in activist behavior during her own student days and initially thought it was no more than a lark to take Che for a visit with his mother. In truth, Che's mother is dead, though given what is revealed of her maternal feelings toward her son, or rather the lack thereof, he is better off without her. Yet, at seven, this is not a concept that Che is prepared to absorb.

Reviewers had very mixed opinions about His Illegal Self, in some instances even disagreeing about the basic points of Carey's plot. Donna Seaman, writing for Booklist, praised the novel for its psychological twists and turns, as well as remarking that the duality "between the need to belong and the dream of freedom during the days of rage over the Vietnam War is at once terrifying and mythic." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly commented that "while this novel lacks the boldness of Theft or the sweep of Oscar and Lucinda, it's still a fine addition to the author's oeuvre." Reviewing for New Statesman, Helen Oyeyemi observed that "the writing has a stark, atmospheric economy to it." James Wood, in a contribution to the New Yorker, declared that "Carey's novel is determinedly unpolitical--to a political degree. It may appear to harbor a conservative disdain for the spoiled ambitions of nineteen-seventies radicalism. It is, after all, a novel about not a would-be victor but an absolute victim, and a very young one at that." Nonetheless, he noted, "the novel does not feel like an indictment; it hugs the flanks of its characters and their largely unearned vicissitudes." Spectator reviewer Caroline Moore opined: "Carey engages because he is engaged: as a creator, he is never paring his fingernails, but has, like the boy in this viscerally gripping novel, 'earth packed in black moons' beneath them. He wrestles with real questions of authenticity and Australian identity; while his prose bursts with such authentic colloquial energy that it is like the rough drive over a fallen tree described in this novel."

Carey's 2009 novel Parrot and Olivier in America (published in 2010 in the United States) is a fictionalized account of the American travels of French writer and political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, the author of the famous Democracy in America. On his journey in the early 1830s, the Frenchman traveled through the United States and Canada, accompanied by his friend Beaumont. Ostensibly in America to study the prison system, de Tocqueville ended up examining the entirety of the political system of the new republic.

For his novel, Carey puts in de Tocqueville's place Olivier-Jean-Baptist de Clarel de Barfleur de Garmont, a spoiled and self-impressed French aristocrat who has gotten himself mixed up in the return of Napoleon. His parents, wealthy nobles, are shocked and dismayed at Olivier's involvement in such intrigues, and to keep him out of harm's way they decide to pack him off to the New World on a fact-finding mission about the American prison system. Olivier, however, is so self-immersed that he finds little to interest him in New York and Philadelphia, turning his nose up at what he sees as the shopkeeper class that constitutes much of American life. Olivier begins to change his opinion, though, when he falls in love with a Connecticut charmer. Olivier is accompanied on his travels to America by the hard-pressed servant John "Parrot" Larrit, a survivor of the Australian penal colony and a man who knows how to find his way in the world and does not think too highly of his coddled master. Polar opposites, Olivier and Parrot make an odd couple in the rough and tumble of the new American nation. Olivier for the first time in his life confronts the common man and the hard life others have. Meanwhile, Parrot has a dual function on the travels: to take care of and protect his callow master, and at the same time to act as spy for Olivier's mother back in France. "Boozing, bawdiness and scheming feature in the picaresque adventures that follow, landing the pair at fancy dinners, in brawls and, briefly, in jail," noted Houston Chronicle reviewer Hephzibah Anderson. Over the course of their adventures and travels, the two ultimately form a grudging respect for one another and their respective worldviews.

Writing for the London Times Online, Tom Shippey commented on Casey's two protagonists and their differing points of view: "What makes the relationship a more even one than its many predecessors ... is the fact that they tell their conjoined story in alternate sections, often overlapping chronologically; and as with other relationships, the balance of power and the degrees of affection or hostility keep changing." Similarly, Ursula K. Le Guin, reviewing the novel for the London Guardian, wrote: "The relationship between Parrot and Olivier is a substantial element of the story, and often a very funny one." Speaking with Writer contributor Gabriel Packard on getting his narrative voices correct in this novel, Carey remarked: "The voices of Parrot and Olivier are really the way they were the first time I sat down to write. My concern about writing this book, my great terror was--what do I know about the French aristocracy or even French history? So there was a real concern--was this beyond my range? But once I had Olivier's voice, I thought, OK, you can do this."

Not all reviewers felt that the author succeeds in his tale, however. Writing for the New York Times Book Review, Thomas Mallon commented: "Like most of Carey's inventive, maximalist entertainments, [Parrot and Olivier in America] is replete with expressed feeling, if too wittily contrived for actual passion." Mallon added: "Sentence for sentence, Carey's writing remains matchlessly robust. ... But as the book's bravura paragraphs grow into chapters, the author seems unable to decide whether it's Democracy in America or Martin Chuzzlewit or, once more, Great Expectations he'd like to inflate and transform." Le Guin, however, had a higher assessment, terming Parrot and Olivier in America a "dazzling, entertaining novel." Similarly, Library Journal Sarah Conrad Weisman called the novel an "engaging book," and Booklist contributor Donna Seaman dubbed the work an "imaginative and commanding tale."

London museum conservator Catherine Gehrig is at the heart of Carey's 2012 novel, The Chemistry of Tears. When her married lover suddenly dies, her grief is so desperate that her employer gives her a restoration project in hopes that it will take her mind of her sadness. The project is to bring back to working condition a nineteenth-century mechanical bird. In the course of her research for restoring the automaton in the shape of a swan, she uncovers the diaries of Henry Branding, a wealthy Englishman from the nineteenth century who traveled to Germany to commission the construction of this mechanical bird for his sick son. In Germany, Branding meets with a man named Herr Sumper, part inventor, part thief, and seemingly a genius. Reading this diary, Catherine begins to understand the wonders of the mechanized bird, and finds a sort of comfort in Branding's desire to help his son. She finds resonance in his story and her own condition as she resurrects the clockwork swan. "The stories link themselves together through their joint sense of construction as salvation, their shared notion that the swan itself embodies hope and progress," commented Tom Moran in Antipodes. Complicating matters, however, is Catherine's assistant in this project, Amanda Snyde, an ambitious newcomer to the museum whose actions become increasingly neurotic, obsessing over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Spectator reviewer Richard Davenport-Hines had a mixed evaluation of The Chemistry of Tears, noting: "This is a subdued, even careworn book with a wary attitude to dehumanising technology. There are neat descriptions of lush German landscape, but none of the elating richness of Carey's spectacular Australia-based novels. Readers who revelled in his mid-life exuberance will find him at the age of 69 sombre and apprehensive." Similarly, Moran observed that the plot is "a solid premise for a literary work, and Catherine is a complex and richly drawn character; while the reader doesn't always like her, it's difficult not to sympathize as she wallows in loneliness and despair." Moran further commented: "However, the book tends to lose focus when it shifts away from Catherine or Henry to its considerable array of supporting characters." New Statesman writer Talitha Stevenson also had reservations about this novel, contending that it is "method first, with madness spread all over it, as if the human story were an afterthought, less interesting than the essay at the novel's core." Stevenson added: "The Chemistry of Tears is a mechanical marvel but it's not all that much like life." Likewise, a New York contributor noted that, "like a beautifully constructed automaton, the novel moves convincingly but never comes completely to life."

A more positive assessment of The Chemistry of Tears was offered by an Economist contributor who observed that The Chemistry of Tears is a "shorter and less ambitious book than some of [Carey's] earlier works--but a wholly enjoyable journey." Further praise came from New York Times Online reviewer Andre Miller, who found the novel "both touching and thought-provoking," and from contributor Heller McAlpin, who termed it "dazzling," as well as a novel that "encompasses heartbreak, the comfort of absorbing work, the transformative power of beauty and the soul of an old machine."

Carey explores the cyberworld of hackers, political radicals, and the history of the special relationship between the United States and Australia in his 2015 novel, Amnesia. Blending high-stakes action with satiric humor, Carey tells the story of Gaby Baillieux, an Australian woman who releases the Angel Worm into the Australian prison system computers, opening doors and releasing thousands of prisoners. This worm also gets into the computer system in U.S. prisons and causes havoc in America as well. Gaby quickly goes on the run, with government agencies chasing her. Meanwhile, the old left-wing journalist Felix Moore is hired to write her life story in a sympathetic vein to try to preempt her extradition to the United States. He speaks with Gaby's mother, Celine, whom he knew he knew in college and who is an actress. In the process of his research, Moore delves into Australian history since World War II and its complex relationship with the United States, including a coup in 1975 supposedly engineered by the CIA.

Amnesia had its critics and proponents. Observer Online contributor Anthony Cummins faulted it for taking on too many issues: "What makes the novel so unwieldy is our uncertainty about the status of what we're reading. ... Maybe the form [Carey] needs right now is the essay." Wrtiting in the Washington Post Book World Online, Ron Charles similarly noted: "What a missed opportunity for one of the best writers in the world. With his story of the muckraker and the cyberterrorist, Carey might have given us a provocative update on Janet Malcolm's The Journalist and the Murderer. Or he could have breathed life into that forgotten coup of 1975 the way he reimagined the folk hero in True History of the Kelly Gang. But instead, all the potentially fantastic elements of Amnesia are minced and scrambled and finally overwhelmed. Forget it."

An Economist reviewer, however, had a much higher assessment of Amnesia, noting: "This ... is a novel about the new American empire and its repercussions around the world, about technology and, most movingly, about family. It is slippery and compelling, written with the vivid precision that marks Mr. Carey's best work." The contributor went on to comment that Carey "should be in with a chance for a third [Booker] prize next year" with this novel. London Guardian Online writer Andrew Motion was also enthusiastic about this work, observing: "Carey's book is whirling and intricate, yet such is the excitement of the writing, we take the ride very gladly." Motion added: "Amnesia [is] a deeply engaging book. It responds to some of the biggest issues of our time, and reminds us that no other contemporary novelist is better able to mix farce with ferocity, or to better effect."

Carey's A Long Way from Home looks at the long, often-concealed Australian history of racism and murder--but it does so through the lens of a Wacky Races-style competition. "It begins ... in the 1950s, in the white rural Victorian town of Bacchus Marsh--Carey's own hometown, and a tiny detour on the road between Melbourne and Ballarat," wrote Stephanie Convery in the London Guardian. "The sparkling, practical, decisive Irene Bobs, her car salesman husband Titch and their two children have just moved next door to the bookish Willie Bachhuber: a disgraced teacher with an occasionally explosive temper, who is hiding from his child support payments. The three of them strike up a friendship of sorts, and decide to enter the Redex Around Australia Reliability Trial, a real event ... concocted by a fuel additive company." "Plucky Irene Bobs and her tiny husband Titch, with their mysterious neighbour as a navigator, set off from their GM dealership ... to race in the trial," explained Lidija Haas in the Financial Times. "Their story converges with that of the land's indigenous inhabitants, and the book is full of horrors and brilliance--a mass grave stumbled on; an Aboriginal rewriting of the Captain Cook story."

The grave of an indigenous family marks a turning point for Bachhuber, whose specialty is history. "In the book it's Willie, a teacher who has been raised in Adelaide by his German Lutheran father, who first begins to understand that beneath the lines which indicate the position of roads and fences--the trappings of colonial Australia--the land has a much older, much richer story to tell," said Arminta Wallace in the Irish Times. "In a series of disorienting revelations, we learn that Willie is not the man he thinks he is. Nor is Australia the country it imagines itself to be," stated Ron Charles in the Washington Post Book World. "As the Redex Trial and the potentially rich feminist story of Irene fade into the background, Carey recasts A Long Way from Home as a novel that moves through time instead of across geography. After some complicated shenanigans, Willie gets stuck in a remote place." "As he explains in a lengthy afterword to the novel," Wallace continued, "Carey worked with an anthropologist, members of an Indigenous community and the Aboriginal writer Steve Kinnane to arrive at the language used in the later part of the novel where, without giving away too much of the plot, Willie fetches up teaching Aboriginal kids in a remote outback station."

Through the character of Bachhuber Carey's novel shifts from a story about an auto race to one about the uncovering of truth about the white occupation of Australia. "Like Willie Bachhuber, who tries to create maps that depict not only place and location, but also the sedimented layers of time and history," declared Patrick Flanery in the Spectator, "... Carey turns the novel into a staging ground for his own merciless excavation of Australian history." The novel, wrote a Kirkus Reviews contributor, "illuminates a country very different from the `monocultural' one upon which the government insists," and "discovers that racial identity may not be as simple as black and white." "A Long Way from Home, like most of Carey's work," said Haas, "began with an abstract idea that he followed through logically, as if constructing an argument, but springs to life on the page as something loud and fleshy and hilarious," Carrey, explained Booklist reviewer Alexander Moran, "delves into his career-long fascination with the dark underbelly of Australian history."


From: "Peter Carey." Gale Literature: Contemporary Authors, Gale, 2018.


  • Further Reading


    • Carey, Peter, Wrong about Japan: A Father's Journey with His Son, Knopf (New York, NY), 2005.
    • Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 40, 1986, pp. 127-135, Volume 55, 1989, pp. 112-119, Volume 96, 1997, pp. 19-85.
    • Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, 3rd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
    • Huggan, Graham, Peter Carey, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1996.
    • Lamb, Karen, Peter Carey: The Genesis of Fame, Angus & Robertson (Sydney, New South Wales, Australia), 1992.



    • Antipodes, June, 2013, Tom Moran, review of The Chemistry of Tears, p. 110.
    • Atlantic Monthly, November, 2003, Michael Gorra, "Fabulous Forgeries," review of My Life as a Fake, p. 163.
    • Book, January, 2001, Jeff Ousborne, review of True History of the Kelly Gang, p. 80.
    • Booklist, January 1, 1998, review of Jack Maggs; August, 2001, Brad Hooper, review of 30 Days in Sydney: A Wildly Distorted Account, p. 2078; November 15, 2007, Donna Seaman, review of His Illegal Self, p. 5; November 1, 2009, Donna Seaman, review of Parrot and Olivier in America, p. 5; November 15, 2017, Alexander Moran, review of A Long Way from Home, p. 32.
    • British Book News, February, 1981, Neil Philip, review of Bliss.
    • Chicago Tribune, February 19, 1995, Douglas Glover, review of The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, section 14, p. 5.
    • Economist, January 20, 2001, "A Wizard from Oz," review of True History of the Kelly Gang, p. 8; January 29, 2005, "True History of the Carey Gang; The Real Japan," review of Wrong about Japan: A Father's Journey with His Son, p. 82; June 3, 2006, "Art Darts; New Fiction," review of Theft: A Love Story, p. 82; April 7, 2012, review of The Chemistry of Tears, p. 94; November 8, 2014, "Forget-Me-Not; Peter Carey," review of Amnesia, p. 86.
    • Encounter, September-October, 1985, D.J. Taylor, review of Illywhacker.
    • Financial Times, January 5, 2018, Lidija Haas, "Peter Carey on Facing Australia's Original Sin."
    • Guardian (London, England), January 22, 2005, Ian Sansom, "Stuffu Happens," review of Wrong about Japan; May 27, 2006, Patrick Ness, "The Sacred in the Profane," review of Theft; January 30, 2010, Ursula K. Le Guin, review of Parrot and Olivier in America, p. 12; November 18, 2017, Stephanie Convery, "Peter Carey: 'You Wake up in the Morning and You Are the Beneficiary of a Genocide.'"
    • Houston Chronicle (Houston, TX), April 18, 2010, Hephzibah Anderson, "Parrot & Olivier Takes a Wacky Ride through U.S.," review of Parrot and Olivier in America, p. 12.
    • Irish Times, January 15, 2018, Arminta Wallace, "Peter Carey: The Novel That Made Everybody 'Wildly Worried.'"
    • Kirkus Reviews, November 15, 2004, review of Wrong about Japan, p. 1074; April 1, 2006, review of Theft, p. 308; March 1, 2010, review of Parrot and Olivier in America; December 15, 2017, review of A Long Way from Home.
    • Lancet, February 3, 2001, Robin Gerster, "The Ned Kelly Myth and Australian Identity," p. 401.
    • Library Journal, August, 2001, Joseph L. Carlson, review of 30 Days in Sydney, p. 144; January, 2002, review of True History of the Kelly Gang, p. 48.
    • Los Angeles Times, June 19, 1988, Carolyn See, review of Oscar and Lucinda; November 5, 2001, "Mining a Colonial Past," p. E1; January 1, 2010, Sarah Conrad Weisman, review of Parrot and Olivier in America, p. 88.
    • Maclean's, March 26, 2001, John Bemrose, "Dialogue with a Desperado," p. 48.
    • Meanjin, September, 2001, Andreas Gaile, review of True History of the Kelly Gang, pp. 214-220; March, 2004, Michael Heyward, "Chinese Boxes," review of My Life as a Fake, p. 103.
    • New Leader, November-December, 2003, Philip Graham, "A Prankster's Peril," review of My Life as a Fake, p. 39.
    • New Republic, April 10, 1995, Michael Heyward, review of The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, pp. 38-41.
    • New Statesman, January 8, 2001, D.J. Taylor, review of True History of the Kelly Gang, p. 42; January 10, 2005, Susanna Jones, "Culture Shock," review of Wrong about Japan, p. 51; February 11, 2008, Helen Oyeyemi, "Lost and Found," p. 59; May 7, 2012, Talitha Stevenson, review The Chemistry of Tears, p. 45; November 28, 2014, Leo Robson, review of Amnesia, p. 42.
    • Newsweek, January 29, 2001, Malcolm Jones, "An Outlaw Down Under," p. 64.
    • New Yorker, January 22, 2001, John Updike, review of True History of the Kelly Gang, pp. 80-83; November 24, 2003, John Updike, "Papery Passions," review of My Life as a Fake, p. 100; March 3, 2008, James Wood, "Notes from Underground," p. 79; July 23, 2012, review of The Chemistry of Tears, p. 79.
    • New York Review of Books, March 29, 2001, John Banville, review of True History of the Kelly Gang, pp. 15-16.
    • New York Times, January 7, 2001, Anthony Quinn, "Robin Hood of the Outback," review of True History of the Kelly Gang, section 7, p. 8; February 15, 2001, Mel Gussow, "Novelist Champions an Australian Rogue," p. B8; September 16, 2001, Gary Krist, "A Month Down Under," section 7, p. 34; April 27, 2010, Charles McGrath, "At Home in Australia, New York and Writing," p. 1.
    • New York Times Book Review, October 4, 1985, Howard Jacobson, review of Illywhacker; May 29, 1988, Beryl Bainbridge, review of Oscar and Lucinda; January 12, 1992, Francine Prose, review of The Tax Inspector, pp. 1, 26; February 8, 1998, Caryn James, review of Jack Maggs; April 18, 2010, Thomas Mallon, "Tocqueville: The Novel," review of Parrot and Olivier in America, p. 18.
    • Observer (London, England), January 2, 2005, Peter Conrad, "It Was Full of Eastern Promise," review of Wrong about Japan.
    • Publishers Weekly, August 20, 2001, review of 30 Days in Sydney, p. 73; October 8, 2007, review of His Illegal Self, p. 34; December 4, 2017, review of A Long Way from Home, p. 42.
    • Review of Contemporary Fiction, spring, 2004, Irving Malin, review of My Life as a Fake, p. 146.
    • San Francisco Chronicle, October 18, 2001, Oscar Villalon, "'Kelly Gang' Author Peter Carey Wins Second Booker Prize," p. B3.
    • School Library Journal, April, 2001, Dori DeSpain, review of True History of the Kelly Gang, p. 171.
    • Spectator, December 12, 1981, Francis King, review of Bliss; January 13, 2001, John de Falbe, review of True History of the Kelly Gang, pp. 35-36; August 25, 2001, Peter Porter, review of 30 Days in Sydney, p. 35; June 3, 2006, Sebastian Smee, "The Art of the Matter," review of Theft; February 17, 2008, Caroline Moore, "A Dickensian Tale of a Child of the '70s," p. 11; January 30, 2010, "Adventure with a Difference," review of Parrot and Olivier in America, p. 34; March 24, 2012, Richard Davenport-Hines, review of The Chemistry of Tears, p. 38; November 8, 2014, Wynn Wheldon, review of Amnesia, p. 45; January 13, 2018, Patrick Flanery, "A Brutal Race," p. 42.
    • Stand, Volume 16, number 3, 1975, Carl Harrison-Ford, review of The Fat Man in History.
    • Time, January 22, 2001, Paul Gray, "Sympathy for an Outlaw," p. 82; November 24, 2003, Richard Lacayo, "Rhyme and Punishment: In Peter Carey's Ingenious New Novel, a Poet Who Never Existed Takes on a Disturbing Life of His Own," review of My Life as a Fake, 80.
    • Time International, January 31, 2005, Bryan Walsh, "Land of the Rising Son: In Wrong about Japan, Novelist Peter Carey Explores Pop Tokyo with His Manga-Mad 12-Year-Old," p. 57.
    • Washington Post, February 17, 1995, Carolyn See, review of The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, p. F7.
    • Washington Post Book World, May 2, 1982, Judith Chettle, review of Bliss; August 18, 1985, Curt Suplee, review of Illywhacker; February 27, 2018, Ron Charles, "Peter Carey's New Novel Is a Strange Ride through Australia's Racist Past--and Present."
    • World and I, June, 2001, Robert Ross, "Heroic Underdog Down Under," p. 251.
    • World Literature Today, spring, 2001, David Coad, review of True History of the Kelly Gang, p. 314.
    • World Literature Written in English, November, 1976, Bruce Bennett, review of The Fat Man in History.
    • Writer, March, 2010, Gabriel Packard, "Excavating for the Idea: For Booker Prize-Winning Peter Carey, a New Novel Begins with a Lot of Notes and What Ifs, as Well as Reading and 'Threads of Logic'," p. 18.