Tale of privilege and deprivation

2009-05-07 00:00

Peter Carey has won the Booker Prize twice, for Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang. It’s no surprise that this new novel is beautifully written without an extraneous word in sight.

This story is set in the seventies and focuses on seven-year-old Che, or Jay as his grandmother prefers to call him. Jay has been brought up in extreme privilege by his maternal grandmother in upper-class New York. He’s heard whispers, however, about his absent parents from a teenage friend. They are notorious members of a highly active underground gang whose motivations have everything to do with the Vietnam War. Jay has only a vague memory of his mother from a holiday on Kenoza Lake years before. He’s never allowed to watch television but has to rely on his friend’s prediction that his famous parents are going to “bust him out” one of these days.

His grandmother dotes on the young boy and, although his life of sheltered privilege is very pleasant, Jay dreams of seeing his mother again. When his grandmother tells him that they have a special assignation with someone, Jay’s hopes are immediately raised.

The woman they meet is known as Dial (short for Dialectic). Jay is convinced that this is his mother. He throws himself into her arms, immediately in love with this charming hippie. Dial is instructed by Jay’s grandmother to have him back to her in two hours’ time. Dial has every intention of doing so, but the underground has its own ways of operating.

What should have been a favour — Dial taking Jay for a visit to his real mother — turns into disaster. Jay finds himself mutated into Che again as he is taken on a journey which is far removed from anything he has known. His heart is broken and then mended again in the most unexpected way.

Carey has written a novel which is cryptic but deeply compelling. It’s a page-turning read and one which stays with you long after you’ve read it.

Janet van Eeden

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