Review: Peter Carey, The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith (novel)

Alan P. Scott - Rants - Reviews


The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, by Australian-born author Peter Carey, is, well, an unusual book. Although it contains scientific elements, it's not science fiction. It could be magic realism, and is definitely a kind of fantasy, but it doesn't contain much in the way of magic or the fantastic. It's not a mainstream novel, either, though; Carey has created a world of his own whose ties to this one are tenuous and easily disregarded.

Tristan is the son of the actress Felicity Smith. She owns a run-down theater and runs a small, politically-active theater group, both called the Feu Follet ("Foo Follay"). Tristan's father is one of the other members of the troupe, but it takes a while for us to find out which one. They live and work in the small island nation of Efica, "a country so unimportant that you are already confusing the name with Ithaca or Africa," as Tristan claims in the first paragraph of his memoir.

Efica exists in the political and cultural shadow of Voorstand, a large mainland republic, and the novel is largely an exploration of the relationship between these two countries, as seen by Tristan. Both countries were founded by colonial Europeans; Efica's natural resources (in particular the briques bleu, molluscs from which blue dye can be made) attracted British and French settlers, while Voorstand was founded by the Settlers Free, a radical, almost Jainist group of Dutch-speaking religionists who refused to use animals for any purpose. Efica has remained a poor archipelago, though, up until the novel's (unspecified) present, while Voorstand has become an arrogant and technically-advanced colonial power in its own right, although not without compromising some of the principles on which it was founded.

Efica's cliffs are honeycombed with cables installed by Voorstand in pursuit of some shadowy military objective, and its holographic theaters show endless repetitions of Voorstander Sirkuses (the key to understanding Voorstand. Deprived of the use of animals for entertainment as well as for work, the Voorstand Sirkus is yet a marvel of holograms, fireworks, and robotic simulacra of the creatures that, in the absence of their real counterparts, have become the stuff of myth and reverence for the Voorstanders: Bruder Mouse, Bruder Duck, and their cohorts are celebrated in songs and stories, but most of all in the Sirkus).

The Feu Follet exists in competition to Voorstand, even if Voorstand doesn't deign to notice at first, and Tristan will eventually be seen as an important player in the games of intrigue that Voorstand plays on Efican soil...

All in all, The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith is chaotic, yet filled with a wealth of details that build a sense of realism - too much information to synopsize here. I haven't even touched on Tristan's own physical handicaps, or on how they affect his attitudes, or a hundred other details. The copious use of footnotes and bibliographic citations adds to the verisimilitude. And the characters seem quite real as well. The Voorstanders, for instance, are by and large not cardboard villains; their nation's history leads them to imperialist acts that, while evil in Tristan's eyes, are not incomprehensible in the context Carey presents. The Eficans, too, are more than one-dimensional; their flaws are many and easily exploited by the more ruthless Voorstand, yet they gain the reader's sympathy with their valiant, stylish, yet doomed resistance.

Carey kept me reading till the end, and when I was done I was glad I'd read the book. I cannot say more than that.


This review was reposted to the moderated Usenet newsgroup on June 2, 1995, which came as a pleasant surprise.

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