Tale of obsessions set in Victorian Australia

Oscar & Lucinda, by Peter Carey. New York: Harper & Row, 433 pp. $18.95. ``If there was a bishop, my mother would have him to tea.'' Peter Carey's opening sentence is like an invitation: Draw up your chairs, he seems to be saying, and listen to a story. And we do.

For a while all goes well. He's a spellbinder, we decide, a brilliant portrait-painter. As British reviewers have pointed out, his characters are as distinctly individual as Dickens's - and so are their stories and their environments. Even the period (Victorian) is the same, though in a New York Times interview, Carey says he has read nothing by Dickens.

Settling back in our chairs, we let Carey tell us about Oscar and his marine biologist father and the bond of love - but not of understanding - between them. And he introduces us to Lucinda, who, thousands of miles away in New South Wales, is growing up in a mud-floored hut. But then as the story unfolds we (or at least this reviewer) begin to grow uneasy.

Something's wrong with these two families. Obsession is in the air and there are hints of cruelty. Oscar's narrow-minded father is determined to bring his son up as a loyal member of his strict fundamentalist sect. All in the name of love, of course.

Lucinda is another victim of a single-minded parent. Her mother, a frustrated believer in women's rights, expected the evolving continent of Australia to be the place to realize her dream - to see industrialization become ``the great hope for women.''

Obsession seems to be hereditary - or perhaps it's the environment. Oscar is determined that God has called him to be an Anglican missionary. Lucinda is set on owning a glass factory. Weak, but oh so strong-willed, both develop a passion for gambling.

Of course their paths cross and they end up in Australia with a common driving purpose - to build a glass church, a beautiful church, and give it to an isolated churchless community.

They ignore the doubts of common sense. Where, in a glass church, will the minister change his robes? What if he wants to blow his nose? And when the sun shines on the glass, surely the congregation will fry in the heat and curse the name of God. But build it they must. And do.

Oscar, trapped by a misunderstanding, captive of his obsession, risks all he owns on a bet that he will see the church reach its destination. So he become part of a wretched little expedition into the savage outback. It's a terrible journey burdened by the prefab church and supervised by a sadist - another obsessed individual.

Perhaps I am wrong not to like a book that has pleased so many readers in Britain and Australia. It is certainly entertaining, but with so much despair I want compensation - insights, perhaps, or a touch of literary brilliance. Maybe I let myself be influenced by the disappointing ending. Or by the frequent misprints. I have never, even in these days of computers, seen so many in a book from such a respected publisher.

Pamela Marsh is a free-lance book reviewer.

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