Two-time Booker Prize winner Peter Carey creates a vividly funny work of historical fiction in Parrot and Olivier in America by imagining the real-life experiences of Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat and author of Democracy in America, a hugely popular work first published in 1835.
Carey cleverly uses dual narrators, each with completely different perspectives; Alexis is protrayed as Olivier while his servant companion is John “Parrot” Laritt. Parrot is the orphaned son of an itinerant English printer who is forced to accompany Olivier as he sets sail for the United States. Ostensibly, Olivier is being sent to research the U.S. penal system for a report to the French government. In reality, he’s being sent by his parents (who barely avoided the guillitine during the French Revolution) as a politically-correct way for their son to safely escape the reignited Terror back in France.
In alternating chapters, Parrot sets the tone as the more likeable character — though uneducated and long-suffering, he’s obviously talented and intelligent. Olivier initally comes across as a pampered snob (Parrot often refers to him as “Lord Migraine) but he proves remarkably open-minded in observing most Americans (with President Andrew Jackson as a notable exception).
As the novel progresses, we see a change in attitude. Indeed, a most unlikely friendship develops, particularly as both title players have varying troubles with their love lives. I think it’s primarily because the characters are so well developed (even the minor ones) that makes this an enjoyable and entertaining read. And then, the little history lesson is just thrown in for free!