A New World historical novel from Carey, the two-time Australian-born winner of the Man Booker prize.
We start in the Old World. When the nobleman Olivier de Garmont is born in 1805, post-revolutionary France is still volatile. Olivier lost a grandfather to the guillotine. His parents remain in exile until the Bourbon Restoration. Olivier’s liberal sentiments endanger him during the next revolution (July 1830), and his ultra-royalist mother decides he should be sent out of harm’s way, to America. She acts through her confidant, the one-armed Marquis de Tilbot, and his middle-aged servant, known as Parrot, a most undeferential Englishman. Parrot’s story: As a boy in England, he was rescued by de Tilbot after his father’s wrongful arrest for forging banknotes, sent to Australia where he married and had a child, then was plucked away again by the Marquis. (All this dribbles out in flashbacks.) Olivier is drugged and put aboard a vessel to New York, together with Parrot. Now the nobleman has transplantation in common with his thrice-uprooted new servant. His cover story in America will be that he is investigating their prison system, as did another French nobleman, Alexis de Tocqueville, the inspiration for this novel. Carey’s nobleman is a playful distortion of de Tocqueville, for Olivier is a nincompoop, myopic both literally and figuratively, with zero interest in prisons and slow to realize the resourcefulness of his savvy Parrot. Carey exploits this comic material only fitfully, though he cooks up some adventures for the odd couple and a romance for Olivier, who falls for the daughter of a Connecticut landowner (“I had arrived, quite unexpectedly, in Paradise.”) Their starry-eyed courtship distracts attention from a more interesting development: the budding friendship between the principals (“in a democracy…both parties know that the servant may at any moment become the master”).
Quirky and erudite, but the payoff in human-interest terms is meager.