Peter Carey is a lyrebird of stunning prowess, a mimic par excellence. The Australian novellist has spent the best part of three decades adopting the tongues of Anglican priests (Oscar and Lucinda), Dickensian ne'er-do-wells (Jack Maggs) and hippie American kidnappers (His Illegal Self), not to mention the Aussie brogue of a slew of larrikins, bodgers, galahs and the odd ocker with a kangaroo loose in the top paddock (The True History of the Kelly Gang, Illywhacker, Theft: A Love Story et al).
In his latest novel, Carey tunes his vocal cords to a French aristocrat, Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Garmont, whose descriptions of home life at the time of the Revolution can be infuriating in their obliqueness (odd bicycles, Latin declensions, leeches), but say much about the effete young man's lack of interest in the travails of the hoi polloi.
Carey alternates chapters between the voices of Garmont and the earthy, straight-talking Englishman John "Parrot" Larrit. While Garmont's childhood is marked by nosebleeds (hence the leeches), Parrot's is marred by a fire (in which he loses both his father, an itinerant printer, and his own artistic dreams) and the appearance of the most disturbing ailment of all – the one-armed Marquis de Tilbot. Though of French noble stock, Tilbot is as conniving as any conman and takes no time at all in pressing the young Parrot (so named because he, like Carey, can echo any accent) into service.
Quite why Parrot is beholden to Tilbot even into his fifties is not always clear – though his nefarious treatment by the Frenchman suggests some sort of Stockholm syndrome – but beholden he is, and it is Tilbot who brings Parrot and Garmont together; the Englishman enjoined by his "Monsieur" to spy on the young "Lord Migraine" and report back to the lad's Comtesse mother on his comings and goings.
It is this that leads to the real meat of the story – a journey Garmont is sent on by his government to America: officially to report on the penitentiary system of the upstart US, and what it might teach France as the country moves on without its royal head; but more pointedly, at the behest of his mother, to save the poor boy's neck from another revolution. His adventure is loosely based on the real-life travels of the 19th- century political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville, whose Democracy in America is a classic early work of sociology, but there is a key difference: Garmont is joined by Parrot, as helpmeet-cum-protector.
It is in the New World, where any man can rule his own kingdom, that the dynamic between the pair shifts, from a master- servant relationship to friendship. As Garmont travels around America, he is much taken by its rough-hewn beauty and democracy, countering Parrot's earlier summation that, "The trouble with the general class of Garmonts is that they cannot imagine the life of anyone outside the circle of their arse." And as the pervasive culture infiltrates their story, the pair grow closer, to the extent that Garmont must admit: "The once detestable Parrot could have no other name than friend. He was certainly imperfect, as friends must always be, often very irritating, but he had arraigned himself by my side against the mob, suffered jail... ministered to my pain, and made me laugh."
For how long can the nobleman fall in love with a country and political philosophy that are so alien to him? As long, one guesses, as he is in love with one of that country's daughters. When that relationship comes to an end, with all the abruptness of a swishing guillotine, Garmont turns his back on democracy (though interestingly, not Parrot) like a shamed child. But this conclusion in no way dampens this dashing novel – for it is in the testing of assumptions, in Garmont and Parrot's challenging of each other, that its beauty and intelligence lies.