In 371 E. C. (Efican Calendar) a woman named Felicity Smith gives birth to Tristan, a child with such severe congenital defects that the doctors advise her to let him die. Felicity is an actress and the head of a theater troupe in Chemin Rouge, the capital of a small fictional country called Efica. Instead of getting rid of her son, Felicity takes him to live in the tower of her theater.

The boy actually has three fathers (Bill, Wally, and Vincent), each of whom in his own way accepts responsibility for the horribly deformed child. The boy grows up with the ambition to become an actor, even though he is only three and a half feet tall, his speech is almost unintelligible, and he inspires revulsion in almost everyone that he meets for the first time. Nonetheless, he thrives in the close-knit theatrical community.

When Tristan is eleven, agents from Voorstand murder his mother, who has entered politics and become a "persona non grata" in Voorstand. Tristan also fears for his life, but nonetheless avenges his mother's death by writing subversive pamphlets. Many years later, at the ripe old age of 23, Tristan and Wally (one of his fathers) travel illegally to Voorstand where they encounter many adventures before the novel comes to a satisfactory conclusion.


North versus south, rich versus poor, imperialists versus colonies, exploiters versus exploited--this dense, picaresque novel creates a world in which many of the major issues of our own world appear in unexpected ways. Efica, with its sordid history, tropical climate, and subversive theater; Voorstand, with its vast size, temperate climate, and apparently Dutch language--the reader tries to figure out what real countries they are supposed to represent.

Everything is slightly, but wonderfully, off-kilter in Carey's world. "The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith" provides social commentary, humor, and pathos, all presented in the context of a core group, whose love and loyalty overcome all obstacles. This story, with its array of colorful characters that live on the margins of society, is much like a novel by Charles Dickens.

The hero's severe disability lies at the center of this novel. Intelligence and sensitivity reside within his horribly malformed body. The frequent footnotes to historical, social, and literary works of Efica and Voorstand demonstrate his great learning. Moreover, on p. 5 he reveals that he is a professor, "If you were my students . . . "

Impossible though it seems, Tristan appears to have made a fulfilling life for himself after returning from his adventures in Voorstand. (After all, teaching is very similar to acting, Tristan's original choice of profession.) Thus, the infant who seemed destined to be cast off at birth, not only survives childhood, but also turns into somewhat of a hero. Clearly, his positive self-image and "can do" attitude arise from the experience of being unconditionally accepted as the person he is.


Univ. of Queensland Press

Place Published

Brisbane, Australia



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