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Oscar and Lucinda: A sweeping romance

Oscar and Lucinda won the 1988 Booker Prize and was made into a beautiful movie, I am told, and it is easy to see why. It vividly recreates 19th century England and Australia as it tells an impassioned love story. And it is clever. When Lucinda the heiress confesses her love of gambling to Oscar the clergyman, he says that is not a sin. Believing in God is gambling, too, he says, referring to Pascal’s Wager: there is no reason to believe or disbelieve in God, but it’s wiser to bet He exists because we lose nothing if He doesn’t exist butgain infinite happiness and eternal life if He does.

Lucinda is shocked to hear this from a clergyman, but they settle down to a game of cards, for Oscar is a gambler too.

With colourful characters like that, and history and romance in the bargain, what’s there not to like about this novel? Well, it’s a little too long and the ending is jarring.

Of course, it has to end in tragedy, given the nature of the hero and the heroine. Lucinda is the conventionally unconventional 19th century heroine, rebelling against convention and paying for it. Oscar the gambler and eventually defrocked clergyman is a tortured soul, a guilt-ridden anti-hero.

But the author gives a savage twist to the plot when after describing their romance almost throughout the book, he suddenly introduces another woman who destroys their relationship in just a couple of pages. Miriam not only wrenches the lovers apart but gets everything in the process, for she finds out about Oscar’s gamble with Lucinda. A gamble in which the winner takes all.