The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith by Peter Carey (Australian)

If you are looking for creative story telling coupled with a political message and a strange and dark energy, then The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith is for you.

The book is set in the fictional country of Efica, and island country greatly under the thumb of Voorstand, a neighbouring country with significant cultural and technological interest in and influence over it's small neighbour.

The story itself is a first person narrative from the perspective of Tristan Smith, a young man who was born significantly deformed. He barely stands about 3 foot tall, has no lips and cannot walk because of his deformed limbs. He is born to Felicity Smith, an actor and Efican political activist who runs her own left-wing and subversive theatre company. Tristan is raised by his mother and three father figures and the story recounts his early years growing up amoungst the strange theatre company which is mother leads.

There are two halves to the story. The first half covers Tristan's childhood in Efica, growing up as a deformed young child, challenging himself and his family with his difficult behaviour and attempting to become an actor despite his deformities. He particularly causes difficulties for his caring but sometimes self involved mother who denies him his dream of becoming an actor by moving him away from his home at the theatre and eventually running for government. The second half of the book covers Tristan's travel into Voorstand as an illegal immigrant, despite having followed in his mothers footsteps and become an anti-Voorstand campaigner.

The alternative reality and history that Carey has created in this book are extremely detailed and complex.  

He has created two unique cultures (Efica and Voorstand), complete with their own languages, customs, religions and social and political systems. His account of these countries and their cultures comes complete with footnotes which the narrator (Tristan) uses to make sure that we (the reader) fully understand what he is talking about.

The book is undoubtedly a political comment on imperialism and it's effects on minority cultures. 

Carey illustrates the effect of the clash of cultures between Efica and Voorstand extremely accurately. You can't but give consideration to your own culture's values and customs, and wonder to what extent they have been eclipsed by international influences, or eclipsed those of other countries. I was reminded vaguely of what happened to the indigenous Australian's when the British invaded.A more contemporary example came to mind though. I was reminded of the influence that America has over Australia and the effect that it has on our language and behaviours (the increasing celebration of Halloween in Australia being one such adoption of American custom that comes to mind). The book questioned people's complacency in the face of cultural destruction, and I admired Carey for tackling these issues head on in such a creative way. The book covered many other themes as well; family, love, honour and duty, but it was this particular political theme that was the most prominent.

As interesting and creative as the background to the story was, ultimately this book fell a little flat for me.

Tristan Smith is your ultimate anti-hero. I just couldn't like him. He is an ugly, deformed, horrible, selfish and defiant character full of his own self importance and who creates as much of his own problems as the problems he creates for others. He repulsed me, which limited my enjoyment of the story.

Furthermore, the book is full of incident, most of which revolves around Tristan. This does at times seem a little forced, but if you take it as it comes then you can overcome this problem and just go along for the ride.

My final complaint is this; Carey creates this real sense of anticipation throughout the book, which was never realised. With a title like The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, you can't help but expect that something really significant is going to happen. Whilst the book is full of incident, it still felt as if you waiting for it to start somehow, and it never quite gets there.

Carey is one of Australia's most well known and talented writers.

I do plan to read more of his works for this reason: his writing is amazing. This book is so well written that it is breath taking (despite my misgivings about the actual story) and I feel like a better reader for having finished this book.


What kind of read is this?
A challenging read, with a strange energy and excellent writing.

Do I recommend this book?
I want to, but I honestly couldn't. Not unless you really want to read something very different, for which I would admite you if you did.

Do I recommend that you buy this book?
No, if the Carey mood takes you, then I think that you could borrow this one from the library without any regrets.

Star Rating

4.5 / 8
Good writing and worth reading if you get the opportunity, but there is no need to prioritise it. 

Have you read this book? I would be interested in reading your review if you have. What do you think of books with a political message? Is that ok so long as the story carries it through effectively? How important do you think it is for fiction to have something important to say about political and social issues?


  1. Interesting -- I always think it's admirable when an author is able to create an entire country with all of the different cultural nuances that would exist in that. But, if the novel falls flat, it's really just a disappointment. I haven't read this author before, so I wouldn't mind picking it up and trying, but I will bear your thoughts in mind.

  2. Hm, interesting. I love the author's creativity with making a whole new culture, but I'm not sure if I'd enjoy this book. Fantastic review, though!

  3. I've not been able to read his other books in the past so I will probably skip this one. However, I did recommend this one to a friend of mine.

  4. I enjoyed reading your review Becky. My sense is that I enjoyed Bliss a bit more than you ended up enjoying this one. I mention this because I would love for you to read Bliss, it is also his first novel, and see what you think.

    I agree Carey is worth the effort for the language alone. I think I will follow your earlier recommendation and try maybe his True History of the Kelly Gang next.

    Reading Carey reminds me that even though Australia's population is relatively small, we have a huge array of major writing talent here. So thanks for reading and reviewing so many of them :)


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