Peter Carey is one of the most successful and respected author in modern fiction and is one of only two authors to have won the Booker/Mann prize on two occasions once for 'Oscar and Lucinda' (1988) and then later for the 'True History of the Kelly Gang' (2001). In 'Jack Maggs' written in 1997 Carey is once again writing a historical novel set in early Victorian times and is in this way similar to his two Booker prize winning novels.
The story centres on Jack Maggs a criminal who is transported to Australia to a penal colony in New South Wales. There he eventually obtains a pardon and goes on to make a small fortune. Many years later Maggs decides to return to Britain even though he knows that despite his pardon doing so is very risky and if caught he would be hung for breaking his exile. However Maggs is desperate to see a young man called Henry Phipps who he'd met when Phipps was still a young boy many years earlier. Phipps by then an orphan had shown Maggs great kindness just before he was transported and Maggs never forgetting his debt when he was able to began to financially sponsor Phipps through his childhood. On secretly returning to Britain Maggs discovers that Phipps is not living in the house that Maggs had bought for him, the house is strangely empty. In an attempt to meet with Phipps if he should come back he takes work as a footman in the household of a recently 'self made' gentleman Mr Percy Buckley who lives next door. Maggs's unlikely disguise as a servant is soon put in jeopardy by the attentions of an ambitious author, amateur mesmerist and general celebrity Tobias Oates, this eventually leading to lies, deceit and betrayal.
Some of you may think that you have heard a similar story before and you'd be right since Maggs and Phipps are thinly disguised versions of the characters Magwitch and Pip in Dickens's 'Great Expectations'. Carey has decide to retell that story but through the eyes of the convict Maggs only a minor but important character in Dickens's novel. It is an intriguing concept for a book and the choice of Magwitch/Maggs is a good one since he is one of the most colourful characters in 'Great Expectations' even though he doesn't feature very much on the page.
There is a lot to praise in this book. Carey recreates early 19th century London very well adding a lot of small details of everyday life that make the characters and story very believable. For instance when Maggs get appointed as footman in the Buckle household the main criteria for hiring was that his height was the same as the other footman Constable, this was a big preoccupation of the time since a respectable household had to have footman of the same height to appear as the perfect 'bookends' behind their master. We also find out about the brutality of the penal colonies and the use of the 'Double Cat' a fearsome adaptation of the lash perfected in Australia and also disturbingly we are told about the methods of the back street abortionist practising in the slum areas of Victorian London.
The story is not so straight forward as it first seems, Carey throws in an element of the bizarre (as he is prone to do in his books) by introducing the character of Tobias Oates the famous author of popular fiction who dabbles in hypnosis as a parlour trick. When he hypnotises Maggs to impress Mr Buckle he accidentally uncovers more of Maggs past that he meant and a strange and dangerous relationship begins between the two.
Much of the convict's backstory is told by Maggs himself in the form of letters he writes to Phipps. In these Maggs tells of his early days as a child thief in the slums and are particularly well described, the characters like Ma', her brutal son Thomas and Silas his 'adoptive' Fagin like family are suitably Dickensian and for me that part of the story was the most effective and engaging.
The best thing about the book was the overall atmosphere created. There is always a sense of menace every time Maggs is around and as his fear of his secret being revealed increases desperation sets in.
The whole book is littered with characters that seem to have walked out of a Dickens story. We meet Mercy Larkin Percy Buckle's ambitious maid who also has a chequered past, Mr Spink's the drunken butler and Lizzie Oates distressed sister in law as well as many others.
Having praised the book so far I have say it also had many faults. For me most glaring of these lay with the creation of the main character Jack Maggs. Maggs is full of menace but still gained my sympathy on hearing of his treatment in the penal colony and his exploited childhood. Although the character succeeded in eliciting a powerful emotional impact I never felt I quite got to know him or his motivations. Despite the premise of the story being to 'fill in the blanks' left to us by Dickens, Carey never quite does this and at the end Maggs still remains bit of a mystery.
More generally the story is all about secrets and falsehoods. Everyone has secrets Maggs most obviously but Oates too -possibly loosely based on Dickens himself since Dickens like Oates was a journalist turned author- is living a lie, his reputation and position in polite society is on the verge of being ruined by scandal. Mr Buckle the 'gentleman' of the house is not as he presents himself wanting to be part of a strata of society that his humble beginnings as a grocer will not allow him ever to be. He is not trying to consciously deceive anyone but he is deceiving himself. One character has to hide is homosexuality for fear of the repercussions and even we the readers are privy to the secret that is kept from Maggs- the whereabouts of Henry Phipps.
This focus on secrets and falsehoods I suspect is a criticism of respectable Victorian society (or even our own society) which itself was built on the hardship and exploitation of the lower classes. Exploitation of the young, back street abortions, prostitution and hypocrisy are all examined in this book and are all very Dickensian themes although Carey has the 20th century author's freedom to deal with these in a more graphic way than Dickens ever could dare.
One thing to make clear though is that despite Jack Maggs being based on characters from 'Great Expectations' the book can be enjoyed and understood without having any knowledge of the Dickens classic although if you do it makes it a more worthwhile experience.
Overall it was in an interesting if slightly unfulfilling read, which will give you an insight into Victorian London possibly at the expense of driving narrative. Although 'Jack Maggs' is not one of Cary's best works even a slightly below par novel by Carey is still worth reading above many other less able authors.
'Jack Maggs' in paperback (320 pages) is available from Amazon for £4.79(+p&p) at the time of updating this review.
© Mauri 2007
This review clearly demonstrates a lack of understanding of what Carey was trying to do in this novel. He most definitely imitates the tone and style that Dickens utilizes, and even some of the same techniques. If you haven't read much Dickens, you might not notice, but I certainly was surprised and impressed with the degree of skill involved in Carey's narrative voice. Maggs is a truly compelling character, and his similarities to Pip are what make this novel so meaningful in the context of Great Expectations. Maggs is in many ways just another of Dickens' orphans, and Carey's exploration of how such a child could grow up. This book was brilliant, and this review criticizes irrelevant issues
Jack Maggs is a criminal - a convict shipped away from England to Australia for his crimes, who returns to his native 19th century London to contact one Henry Phipps. Henry was an orphaned boy who showed Maggs a small kindness just before his exile, and whom Maggs has been secretly financially supporting from afar. Maggs returns to England, despite personal danger, so he can finally reveal and explain himself to his "son", Phipps.
Does this sound at all familiar to you? Anyone read any Dickens, perhaps? Maybe you read Great Expectations? Maybe you recall a minor character that plays a major but secret role in the life of young Pip? Do you recall the convict called Magwitch? Think that there are some parallels here? Pip and Phipps, Maggs and Magwitch - two stories taking place in the 19th century dealing with convicts, orphans, exile, secret financial support and painful revelations. But the difference here is that this story isn't told from the side of the growing and prospering lad, but rather from the part of the convict who returns to reveal himself to the young man that once aided him in his hour of need.
Now think about that plot line for a just moment. It's as if Mr. Carey decided to tell the part of Great Expectations that Dickens left out of his novel. If you ask me, I think it almost borders on genius, actually. Unfortunately, great ideas do not always reap great novels, and unfortunately this is an example of just such a situation.
Firstly, you should know that when you start reading this book, you won't feel like you're reading Dickens. Carey doesn't try to imitate Dickens' style or language, and instead uses clues and references to 19th century England in order to give the flavor of the time, rather than to pretend he was writing during it. This is wholly approve of, because too many times modern novels seem fake and artificial because the authors tried too hard to make their writing into a literary time machine, and failed miserably, so all kudos for Carey in this aspect.
However, the main problem with this book was the feeling that the focus wasn't quite right. We seem to be led in one direction and then are veered off elsewhere and never seem to get back to that original track. More simply stated there are a few too many loose ends here. And while hindsight actually shows that some of the ends actually did get wrapped up, they certainly didn't come to any type of logical conclusion.
For example, at the very beginning of the book there's a scene where Jack visits the home of a woman and has heated words with her and then threatens to return the next day for satisfaction. Carey then tells us that Jack didn't return the next day, but rather it took him several weeks to return. Now we do find him returning later in the book, but the events of his return are not to conclude the dispute but rather for something else altogether. The whole conflict with this woman is dropped and never returned to. The old adage of "if you see a gun in the first act, there had better be a dead body by the end of act two" has been violated here. We are given clues that lead us down dead end streets, and this isn't a murder mystery novel, where that is necessary.
Carey also seems to cheat the reader with how he drew his main character, Jack Maggs. While we get a good deal of his background by the very clever device of having Jack write his memoirs to his unsuspecting ward, there are still many holes in his history and personality. What's more, Jack acts uncharacteristically in several instances. Mind you, this isn't all bad, since it suggests a person who is complex, unpredictable and possibly very deep, which would generally fit the mold that Carey has forged for us. However, some things are just not feasible.
For instance, how does someone who started his criminal life as very young boy who probably never had time for schooling, not only learn to read and write perfectly, but can pen his memoirs in mirror-writing, like Leonardo Da Vinci? Furthermore, he's doing it with a special fading ink that needs to be washed with lemon juice and then heated by a flame in order to be restored. Where exactly did this criminal learn these tricks?
In addition, Carey seems to get overly involved with some of the characters that are supposed to be minor ones. This isn't totally disturbing, because Maggs is particularly unsympathetic, and these distractions were actually pleasant ones. But if Maggs is supposed to be the focus of the book, why then do we feel we understand some of these characters more fully than Maggs? Perhaps this was another one of Carey's ways of keeping Maggs enigmatic, and therefore interesting, but it also makes the book feel confusing.
While highly flawed, Carey has given us a fascinating story line, a truly colorful cast of characters that are multi-dimensional, and a setting that is brooding and yet romantic, all written in a style that is both accessible and clear. With these pluses it is no wonder that Carey has found himself no small number of faithful fans. But for my part, my opinion of this book was that it wasn't completely polished, left too many questions unanswered (some questions can be left to one's imagination with great effectiveness, but not as many as can be found here) and seemed a bit distracted and unfocused. Even for those who are Carey fans, this is a book to be borrowed from the library, rather than purchased - a disappointment that gets only two stars out of five.
For those who still might want to purchase this book, it is available through Amazon in paperback for £6.39, and there are other editions available only as used that start as low as £0.01 (oh dear, seems like there are others out there who were less than enamored by this book!).
Published in 1998, this book is classified under fiction as well as crime, thrillers and mystery. I found several ISBN numbers - paperback 0571193773, hardcover 0679440089 and large print hardcover 0754011860.
On a web page about his book "True History of the Kelly Gang" I found the following blurb about Peter Carey:
"Born in Australia in 1943, Peter Carey lives in New York City with his wife, Alison Summers, and their two sons. The author of six previous novels and a collection of stories, he won the Booker Prize for Oscar and Lucinda; his other honors include the Commonwealth Prize and the Miles Franklin Award.
"Peter Carey's Jack Maggs, Oscar and Lucinda, The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, Bliss, Illywhacker, The Fat Man in History, and The Tax Inspector are available in Vintage paperback."
Jack Maggs recounts the tale of a convict returning to London in search of Henry Phipps, an English gentleman who has been assisted and elevated into the upper classes by financial support from an unseen benefactor. Maggs risks the death penalty if he is found by the police since he is returning from New South Wales, where he was deported to some years earlier. For anyone who has read Dickens' Great Expectations, this plot will be known more familiarly as the tale of Abel Magwitch, the villainous convict who provided Pip with such a handsome amount of money to establish himself in London. From a personal perspective, this was the first Peter Carey novel I had read and so it was with great trepidation that I approached it, despite having previously read Great Expectations. As it is, this is the type of novel that can stand independently of its inspiration. What I became embroiled in was a thrilling, freethinking, dynamic piece of literature that exploits the basics of Dickens' original idea but pushes them to a far higher level. Having arrived in London, Maggs discovers that Henry Phipps is no longer in residence at his address. A moment of fortune allows Maggs to gain employment as a footman in a neighbour's house, thus providing the perfect opportunity for him to await Henry's return. The counterpoint of the novel is determined when Titus Oates, an ambitious youthful writer, is given the opportunity to hypnotise Maggs (claiming he can cleanse him of illness). This leads to a revelation that immediately pitches Maggs, a justifiably suspicious and secretive man, against Oates, a ruthless and single-minded hack, who seeks to exploit them. There are the evident biographical associations with Oates as Dickens but their continuous battle is enhanced by flashbacks and self-confession which adds a touch of gritty Victorian secrecy to a wonderfully contemporary novel. Carey is not bound by the taboos of a restricted society which
allows him to encapsulate the horrors of Victorian poverty and the treatment of children whilst maintaining a deliciously deceptive view of Maggs' previous life. Each character is embellished and their interactions are portrayed immaculately. Jack Maggs is a truly ingenious novel that will capture the imagination and clamp it, vicelike, until the finale. I recommend this to anyone, be them Dickens' fans or not.
After years in Australia, deported criminal Jack Maggs is back in London - but for what...?