The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)

RG

RG

IN CONTEXT

FOCUS

Australian writing

BEFORE

1957 Patrick White – one of the most influential modern Australian writers – uses religious symbolism in Voss, a story of a visionary explorer’s encounter with Australia in the mid-19th century.

1982 Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark mixes fact and fiction to explore the impact of an individual on historical events.

AFTER

2001 Peter Carey is awarded a second Booker Prize for his novel The True History of the Kelly Gang, an imaginative take on the legendary Australian hero Ned Kelly.

2006 Indigenous writer Alexis Wright explores the dispossession of Aboriginal lands by white people in her novel Carpentaria.

Australian writers have attracted international interest since the middle of the 20th century. Novelists have moved from traditional themes such as “mateship” (the egalitarian bonds forged by mutual reliance in a harsh environment), national pride, and rural survival, to create works that are provocative and often disturbing. The areas explored by these books include fantasy, beliefs, and personal relationships, while being rooted in the Australian experience.

One of the leading writers and creators of this modern genre is Australian novelist and former advertising copywriter, Peter Carey (1943–). His Oscar and Lucinda, which won the Booker Prize in 1988, is a rich and complex novel set in the mid-19th century, with events taking place in England and New South Wales.

Guilt and faith

The protagonists of the book are Oscar Hopkins and Lucinda Leplastrier. The former is a young clergyman who grapples with his faith – an ungainly, uncomfortable individual, brought up in an English seaside community. The latter is an independent-minded young woman, who grew up in an “earth-floored hut in New South Wales” surrounded by the works of Dickens, Balzac, and other literary greats. Becoming an heiress after her mother’s death, Lucinda buys an old glassworks in Sydney, where she is regarded as odd because of her aloofness and strange behaviour.

The pair meet on board ship travelling from Britain to Australia and from then on their lives are interlinked, coming together in an extraordinary project to build and transport a glass church through the Australian bush.

While on one level Oscar and Lucinda is a historical novel, it is also steeped in fantasy and unreality – Peter Carey described it as “a science fiction of the past”. Its rich and complex characters, descriptive storytelling, and broad-ranging themes of faith, belief, and sexuality ensured its influence on modern Australian literature.

See also: The Three Musketeers • The Lagoon and Other Stories