Loosely based on the life and writings of 19th-century French intellectual Alexis de Toqueville, Peter Carey’s new historical novel feels epic in scope
4/5 Knopf Loosely based on the life and writings of 19th-century French intellectual Alexis de Toqueville, Peter Carey’s new historical novel feels epic in scope. It skips between the aristocratic halls of Paris and the scurry-and-hustle of the New World. Its cast of characters, who range from Philadelphia bureaucrats to British counterfeiters, is impressive. But as broad as Carey’s canvas is, this masterful novel manages to be focused and intimate. Against his rich backdrop, the double Booker Prize-winning author presents us with an intricately detailed portrait of an idiosyncratic relationship between a master and his servant.
Young Olivier de Garmont is a French nobleman bundled off to America in order to escape the revolutionary fervour that led to Charles X’s overthrow in 1830 (in 1789, both of the character’s parents barely escaped the ‘filthy squirt and gush’ of the guillotine). He is attended by Parrot, a middle-aged English engraver who is to act as his secretary. They settle in Manhattan – a ‘provincial town in the process of being built or broken’ – where Olivier’s stated task is to research America’s penal system, though he spends more time puzzling over the nature of democracy. Parrot, meanwhile, falls in love with Mathilde, a tempestuous portrait painter and occasional insurance-fraud arsonist.
Parrot and Olivier thrives on quasi-cinematic set pieces: the nauseous maritime voyage to New York; a night in the infamous Manhattan prison known as the Tombs; the police raid of a British counterfeit operation, which ends with a man, on fire, running across the roof. In between these dramatic moments Carey carves a calmer space in which to build a queasy relationship between his two protagonists, detailing their romantic tribulations and gradual adaptation to the strangeness that is America.
Carey’s visceral recreation of Manhattan is a loving and messy portrait. But it’s the entertaining friction between his two alternating narrators – Olivier’s prissy, stuffed-shirt cadences and Parrot’s sensual romanticism – that make this one of Carey’s best.