This is my second Carey, and though it doesn't top the voice or language of my first (Parrot and Olivier in America), I thoroughly enjoyed and recommend it and now consider myself a fan.
I like his odd premises and vivid detailing and devious humor and quirky characters; I occasionally become disoriented while following their digressive journeys, but so far the crisscrossing paths have always come clear and he's never lost me.
Central to this trek is a mid-nineteenth century and long voyage to Sydney, Australia, during which two independent misfits named Oscar Hopkins and Lucinda Leplastrier meet. She, having heard he is a priest, asks to make a confession. The sin is gambling. The priest -- a thoughtful Anglican with beautiful hands and "a heart-shaped face like an angel by Dante Gabriel Rossetti" -- laughs.
Turns out he gambles too. Oscar started gambling as a boy rolling the childhood equivalent of dice to determine the answer to life's most important question: How best to serve God? The answer: Become an Anglican priest.
He fretfully but sincerely delights in this, despite the ensuing estrangement from his father, who considers Anglicans as damned as pagans and worse than Catholics.
In response to Lucinda's confession, Oscar says: "Our whole faith is a wager, Miss Leplastrier . . . We bet that there is a God. We bet our life on it . . . We must stake everything on the unprovable fact of his existence."
Lucinda instantly "felt she knew him. She imagined not only his passion for salvation but his fear of damnation . . . It was a mirror she looked at, a mirror and window both."
She -- a lovely and idealistic orphan partial to bloomers -- has recently bet her inheritance upon a failing glass factory because she loves art glass and believes "that industrialization will prove to result in the liberation of women."
Should that sound romantic, it is, but there's nothing sentimental about Carey. Given the compounding ironies and harsh realities, sentimentality doesn't stand a chance. In the end the story of Oscar and Lucinda is a tragedy. But it is so compassionately told, beautifully evoked, and honestly rendered that I wouldn't change a thing.