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The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith by Peter Carey
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Jun 18, 2012

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Read in June, 2012

THE UNUSUAL LIFE OF TRISTAN SMITH. (1994). Peter Carey. ***.
Carey has created an alternative universe complete with maps and an annotated language, peopled with characters and institutions much like the ones we are familiar with, but in a place we don’t know. The country we start out in is Efica, a nation that consists of eighteen islands. To the north (I think) of Efica is another country, Voorstand. Voorstand is the more developed of the two countries and seems to hold sway over Efica in ways the Eficans are not sure of – both politically and scientifically. We meet our ‘hero’, Tristan, at his birth. His mother, Felicity Smith, begins to feel her contractions while she is in the middle of “Macbeth” as one of the three witches, and walks out of the theater to the hospital. She almost has the baby in one of the main streets before she finally gets help from some passersby. When Tristan is born, the doctors want to take him from his mother and “dispose” of him. We don’t really know what he looks like, but it isn’t good. He is somewhat like a dwarf with a triangular face and no lips. His legs are like pipe cleaners and gnarled. He is ugly! Felicity argues with the doctors to keep him, and it takes many operations to get him relatively functional, including several heart operations. His father could be any one of three men – although it is later narrowed down to one of them. All of them are connected with the theater one way or another. The whole birth sequence reminds you of Sterne’s story. We learn more about Felicity and the theater she owns, Feu Follet (pronounced Foo Follay), a modernistic group that puts on politically oriented dramas. Felicity is originally from Voorstand. She changed her last name from Smutts to Smith to show her contempt for her native country. Kind of reminds you of South Africa. We follow Tristan as he grows up. He wants to be an actor, a stretch ambition since he is ugly, malformed, and can’t speak very well. He eventually makes his dream, but not quite as he thought it should be. The novel and its characters ultimately become more politically involved, and Tristan’s mother is tragically killed. The second half of the book takes us on a trip to Voorstand along with Tristan and various friends of his, and is quite different from the first half. I wouldn’t say that it is less interesting, but it is certainly different. In all, Carey has taken on a formidable task in telling this story, and, in the process has stretched it out too far. It begins to become a chore to read it. Although it is certainly ambitious and creative, he began to lose me about half-way through.

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