Dickens this ain’t

Oscar and Lucinda

By Peter Carey

It is a truth universally acknowledged that novels awarded the Booker Prize can be unreadable. I have always thought this criticism obtuse and unfair – even envious. But this book proves the rule. It is not that it is difficult to read, or that it is badly written. I giggled along with Carey as he poked fun at his characters. I nodded when Carey winked at Dickens with a turn of phrase. I smiled when one of his humorous sequences or scene descriptions lifted my mood with its originality. I’ll give him all of those – and more than can be mentioned here.

It was the sheer banality of it all that depressed me. The characters are full of colour, but neither Carey nor his reader cares for them. The author is far too busy mocking his characters and their cultural quirks to empathise with them. In this way the novel felt immensely disappointing. It is a novel often compared with those of Dickens – and I can understand why. Carey has an eye very much like Dickens’ in his fine descriptions of clerks’ offices and parlour rooms. He is just as adept at exposing his characters’ human frailties. But, where Dickens used these techniques to tell us something about his characters’ lives and the societies in which they lived, Carey cannot. His retrospective view on the 19th century is focused on how ridiculous it all is. That is why I could not connect with these characters – no matter how hard I tried. Like Carey, I was too busy poking fun at them. That’s not good enough.

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