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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith

Peter Carey

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To purchase The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith

Title: The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith
Author: Peter Carey
Genre: Novel
Written: 1994
Length: 414 pages
Availability: The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith - US
The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith - UK
The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith - Canada
The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith - India
La Vie singulière de Tristan Smith - France

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Our Assessment:

B : impressive invention, but too drawn-out

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Independent . 17/9/1994 Claire Messud
The New Republic . 10/4/1995 Michael Heyward
New Statesman . 18/11/1994 Shaun Whiteside
The NY Rev. of Books . 22/6/1995 April Bernard
The NY Times Book Rev. . 12/2/1995 Carol Shields
The New Yorker . 6/3/1995 Tom Shone
TLS . 2/9/1994 Eric Korn
The Washington Post . 17/2/1995 Carolyn See
World Literature Today . Summer/1996 David Coad

  From the Reviews:
  • "Carey's novel is extremely impressive, and it develops an engrossing and thought-provoking narrative. But it is a dark, dense book, with little of the easy charm of, say, Oscar and Lucinda (it is difficult, initially, to be charmed by the mangled and snivelling Tristan). And while the invention of Smith's surroundings, at once alien and familiar, is intellectually necessary to the power of the novel, it risks distracting or even deterring less determined readers." - Claire Messud, The Independent

  • "Tristan Smith is an obsessive parable of national identity. (...) Carey's intuition of the dialectics of Efica and Voorstand is one the novel's prime imaginative feats. (...) Could there be anything worse, Carey seems to be asking, than a situation in which practically everyone espoused the values of mass culture, especially in societies that did not create them ?" - Michael Heyward, The New Republic

  • "Carey's novel is about national identity viewed from the outside and the periphery. (...) This quest for identity is carried out on a personal level. The deformed mutant, Tristan, believes that he can be transformed through art and theater. He leaves his native Efica in order to become part of the glamorous entertainment culture of a fictionalized America seen by Carey in terms of metaphor. Such has been the fate of Carey himself." - David Coad, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith closes with the eponymous narrator noting:

At that time, although I did not know it, my unusual life was really just beginning.
       Readers who have made it this far may wonder why author Peter Carey didn't tell that story -- of the unusual life to come -- but, of course, by then it's too late. Not that the 400-plus pages of The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith aren't filled with much that is, indeed, unusual, but there's always a sense of anticipation, of all this oddity leading to something more -- and all it leads to is that final sentence.
       The novel is set in a world much like ours but not quite the same. It's the fourth and fifth centuries by their calendar, and their are slightly different technologies, but almost everything else is like the world of the present. Tristan Smith comes from Efica, a small island-state completely dominated by distant and much larger Voorstand. The readers he imagines are also Voorstanders, addressed occasionally in the second person (with him making a great deal of the differences between super-power Voorstand and tiny, dependant Efica).
       Tristan Smith tells his life story from the very beginnings. He is born to a radical actress named Felicity, who is actually from Voorstand but has embraced Efican anti-Voortsand politics with a vengeance. Tristan is a misshapen tiny thing when he is born, and it's amazing that he survives at all (thanks largely to his mother). Extensive later medical procedures make him a close to functioning human, but he always remains small and unsightly. Three men vie to play the role of father, and all do, at various points. In addition, the theatre company makes an extended family of sorts.
       His mother's theatre is very different from the usual Sirkus (circus) entertainment popular in Voorstand and Efica -- offering serious drama as well as agitprop and political plays. Tristan is the protected child in the theatre, and eventually also wants to become an actor -- quite a challenge given his ghastly appearance and his inability to speak clearly. His mother isn't thrilled by the idea, but eventually gives in -- and it turns out that Tristan is well-suited for at least one masked role. Among the popular figures of story (and Sirkus) are the Disneyesque Bruder Mouse and Oncle Duck and similar figures, and it is in the role of Bruder Mouse that Tristan finds at least part of his calling.
       The first half of the novel takes place in Efica, culminating in Felicity's foray into politics (she runs for office), some betrayal and dirty doings by meddling Voorstanders, and her death. The second half finds Tristan, years later, travelling to Voorstand with a few others.
       Throughout there are small and large adventures, from Tristan's theatre-bound early life to the more adventurous traveller's tales of his Voorstand trip. Tristan's unsightly appearance and his inability to communicate clearly complicate matters, but also allow for many of the unusual occurrences that fill the book; unfortunately, there's also considerable sense of the artifice: Tristan seems to be the way he is purely for narrative purposes, to allow these stories to be invented around him.
       The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith is also a political novel, small Efica no longer a colony but now completely dominated by Voorstand -- a domination that seems largely benign but does include some ominous aspects (Voorstand has threaded insulated cable "through our nation's belly", turning the main island into a giant antenna, for one thing) -- and Voorstand is clearly willing to crush any true opposition at any cost. Voorstand is so much more powerful than Efica that the small nation clearly can never entirely escape the clutches of the larger one.
       Similarly, the Disneyesque animal-characters are also politicised, both cultural imperialism and reflections of the inter-national issues.
       Carey presents interesting episodes, and the book -- fully annotated (with fictional references and all) and with a glossary -- is cleverly presented. The politics and the personal are not entirely convincingly brought together, however, and the focus -- often drawn-out accounts -- is not always on what would seem to be of greatest interest, making for an odd pacing that can be wearing over the course of over four hundred pages.
       There's a great deal of impressive invention in the book, and the episodes are well-presented. The whole, however, flags, and the reader is left feeling that the payoff for this unusual life really does only come after what is presented here.

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The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith: Reviews: Peter Carey: Other books by Peter Carey under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Australian literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Australian author Peter Carey was born in 1943. He has won the Booker Prize, the Miles Franklin Award, and the Commonwealth Prize.

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© 2003-2012 the complete review

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