I was in love with this novel by the time I'd read the first chapter: I very nearly got up early this morning to finish it, because I was so eager to find out how Carey would tie up all the threads. It's a post-colonial take on Dickens' Great Expectations. If I'd known that, I would never have bought it. I don't much care for Dickens, though now I find myself strangely inclined to (re?)read Great Expectations, which I don't think I ever finished when forced to tackle it at school.
Other people have discussed the intertextuality at considerable length: there's a good essay here
The novel is set in London in 1837. Jack Maggs is a convict, secretly returned from Australia to find his son, Mr Henry Phipps. Phipps is away from home, and so Maggs gains employment (one can't really say he seeks it) at the house next door, in the employ of Mr Buckle, former vendor of fried fish who has come into a Great Good Fortune. Mr Buckle has guests to dinner, that first night, and one of them is the celebrated author Tobias Oates. Jack Maggs is overcome by an old affliction; Oates hypnotises him; and one by one Jack's secrets are brought out of his mind and into the open, gradually revealing a past that is both murkier (in the sense of lack of clarity) and cleaner (in the sense of sin and morality) than one might expect.
A confession: I seem to have developed an interest in criminals named Jack, and this one is no exception. Jack Maggs is an utterly compelling character. He's competent, clear-minded and mature: he may be the most honest person in the book. He is no stranger to violence, but doesn't rely on it. There's a darkness to him, but he is surprisingly kind to others. He is literate, and intelligent, and has learnt to live with his past, and with his affliction -- a tic doloreuse that 'slapped his face like a clawed cat', that under Oates' mesmerism and Magnetism assumes the form of a blond soldier.
Tobias Oates is clearly based on Charles Dickens, just as his career was beginning to take off. Jack Maggs is a lighter view, a reinterpretation, of Magwitch from Great Expectations: Phipps is a nastier version of Pip. Carey's description of the gradual transformation of Jack, in Oates' eyes, from chance encounter to Character, is one of the most fascinating aspects of the novel. Looking at the charred corpse of a dead child, Oates has an epiphany about the fate of his Character. All his investigations of the Criminal Mind -- for which he turns to Jack, a very susceptible hypnotic subject, though it's hard to find anyone entirely innocent in the whole of the novel -- are made with a view to their eventual use in his great novel. It's clear that the novel will be written: equally clear, as events progress, that Oates's interest in an unbiased depiction of the Criminal Mind is being warped by his increasing intimacy with Jack Maggs.
At the end of the novel Jack Maggs, it's clear that Oates is no longer privy to news of actual events: his novel, The Death of Maggs, is not published until after the death of its original inspiration, and is markedly different. And there's much in Maggs' tale that eludes Oates, or that he dramatises beyond recognition. Carey recounts a key incident in Maggs' history by including a chapter of Oates's opus, but none of the characters except Maggs himself, and possibly -- eventually -- Mercy the maid, are in a position to fit this chapter into the tale that Maggs has been constructing in his letters to Henry Phipps.
For a character who's often referred to as 'the convict', and seen by those around him as a dangerous criminal, Jack's a surprisingly mild and good-natured individual. Around him are played out a portfolio of 19th-century hypocrisies: adultery, homosexuality, fraud, murder, suicide, pregnancy out of wedlock, abortion, child prostitution ... Jack's early life (found by mudlarks under London Bridge, reared by a red-headed abortionist named Mary Britten, sent down chimneys at the age of five) has a sort of innocent charm to it beside the middle-class deceptions of Buckle, Phipps and Oates. He's been punished for his crimes -- in the harsh school of the penal colony in Sydney -- and seems a reformed character. Though he is certainly guilty of crimes during the course of the novel, his motivation is not straightforward, and the provocation extreme and intimate. Jack Maggs is the victim, now: his treasures, his secrets, are stolen away.
It's a novel about children, and especially lost children. Easy enough to work that, too, into the post-colonial angle: Jack Maggs, fostered by Ma Britten (as transparent a personification as you could wish) returning to his homeland, only to find it a city of dreadful night (though, to be fair, there are daffodils in window-boxes, and blossom on the pear-tree, too). It's time for Jack to become a lost child himself, to step away from the mother who made him a criminal and condemned him to suffer in Australia. It's time to forget the baby in the ditch, the son who won't see him, the pregnancy that threatens a marriage.
I hadn't read any of Peter Carey's novels before, but the dry humour, the gentle mockery, the eye for detail (Oates keeps Jonathan Wild's death-mask in his study; Jack takes four heaped spoons of sugar in his tea; Buckle is most insulted by Jack's remark that no burglar would expect good silver in a house with Trafalgar Doulton on the table), the vivid, and often resonant, turn of phrase (a 'mob of foreign sailors made ... a dense and rum-sour knot') -- all incline me to read more of his work.
You can read the first two chapters online. Probably better than my typing up excerpt after excerpt ...
Though Dickens and his characters have all been disguised -- and in many cases reinterpreted -- surely this is a kind of literary fan-fiction, an attempt to rewrite, reshape, another author's creation.
My copy, Faber and Faber, has Julia Margaret Cameron's Iago on the cover: Amazon don't seem to stock it, but it's a new edition. Bad glue, though: had fallen apart after being read in front of the fire!