Carey, Peter (Peter Philip Carey)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Carey, Peter (Peter Philip Carey)

Carey, Peter (Peter Philip Carey) (1943- ) Australian novelist

A prize-winning fiction writer and storyteller, Peter Carey has captured the imperial elitism that marked Australia's settlement by Europeans, most from Great Britain. Born Peter Philip Carey in Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, he began taking courses in chemistry and zoology at Monash University in 1961. He left at the end of the first semester the following year and started work in advertising in Melbourne, lasting four years until readings of JAMES JOYCE'S fiction and the dark PROPHECY of Franz Kafka turned him to literature and travel. Carey journeyed through the Middle East and Europe, writing visually engrossing fiction and working in advertising in London before returning to Australia in 1970. In 1980, he opened an advertising firm in Sydney, though he continued to produce fiction and developed an inventive writing style that sampled FABLE, FRONTIER LITERATURE, magical realism, grotesque- rie, and the absurd. Like ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER'S memories of Poland and JAMAICA KINCAID'S defense of the West Indies, Carey's visions of Australia elicited controversy as well as praise.

In the year celebrating the bicentennial of Australia's settlement, Carey won the first of his two Booker Prizes for fiction and the second of his three Miles Franklin Awards after publishing Oscar and Lucinda (1988), an allegorical epic of British presumption, racism, and religious superiority in the mid-1860s in its Pacific colonies. The pioneer romance features Anglican priest Oscar Hopkins and glass manufacturer Lucinda Leplastrier in a doomed effort to import religious mores and architecture to outback settlers at Bellingen in northern New South Wales. The two eccentrics outrage fastidious Sydney society by high-stakes gambling that becomes folly in an expedition into the interior with a prefabricated glass church, the epitome of one-size-fits-all colonialism. Their ambivalent love match, disguised as philanthropy, takes an ironic form—a grand, but impractical see-through structure that can be dismantled, moved, and reassembled. Carey idealizes the church as “a knife of an idea, but also one of great beauty, silvery, curved, dancing with light” (Carey 1988, 383), a visual hint at the couple's ill-defined and distorted view of human love and sexuality.

A tale of troubled consciences and realization of the casual slaughter of Australian aborigines, Oscar and Lucinda builds on paradox. The theme of fragile, transparent intent implies the unsuitability of the phobic, ghost-ridden cleric Dennis Hasset, himself agnostic in matters of orthodoxy, for counseling and proselytizing islanders and first nations. The native observer, the storyteller Kumbaingiri Billy, states the obvious and the allusive about a glass structure: “It cuts. Cuts trees. Cuts the skin of the tribes” (469). The slicing image highlights the ruination of aborigines, whom England will chop away from their earth moorings and from possession of traditional lands and mythology. Oscar's passion for Lucinda remains unrequited, though they are friends; his wife finds satisfaction in her rearing of an illegitimate child, the offspring of stodgy England and the rapacious bush country. Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett starred in the 1997 film version, which closes on the surreal drowning of the priest in a floating glass-and-iron chapel, “a miracle, a spider web, a broken thing, a tragedy, a dream like something constructed for George III” (420).

Carey ventured further into historical fiction with a frame narrative, True History of the Kelly Gang (2000), for which he won his second Booker Prize and the Commonwealth Writers Prize. The juxtaposition of Irish colonials with the mythic wilderness substantiates Australia's 19th-century reputation for breeding squatters, transported criminals, fallen women, and raffish outlaws. By humanizing a bushranger, ostensibly in his own semiliterate language, Carey validates the obsession of Australians with shedding the exaggerations and falsehoods that cloud the nation's struggle with illegitimacy and dispossession. Ned Kelly recognizes his ilk as “left alone ignorant as tadpoles spawned in puddles on the moon” (Carey 2001, 278). He speaks for himself and other gallows birds when he voices his frustration with the hypocrisy of respectability: “I wished only to be a citizen I had tried to speak but the mongrels stole my tongue when I asked for justice they give me none” (328). Ned's saga identifies global silencing and slandering of the semicivilized as justification for his recovered history of a colonial class dismissed as Irish lowlifes.


Carey, Peter. Oscar and Lucinda. Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 1988.

------- . True History of the Kelly Gang: A Novel. New

York: Vintage, 2001.

Gaile, Andreas. Fabulating Beauty: Perspectives on the Fiction of Peter Carey. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005.