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Great Expectations...Not Quite
Jack Maggs - Peter Carey
Member Name: Mauri
Jack Maggs - Peter Carey
Date: 01/11/07, updated on 08/06/09 (276 review reads)
Advantages: Well written, good evocation of Victorian London
Disadvantages: Central character
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
Summary: The story of convict Jack Maggs