As a novelist, Peter Carey is hardly a stranger to the 19th century: his Oscar and Lucinda
was a veritable treasure-trove of Victoriana. In this novel, however, Carey has set himself an even more complicated task--reimagining not only a vanished era but one of that era's masterpieces. Jack Maggs
is a variation on Great Expectations
, in which Dickens's tale is told from the viewpoint of Australian convict Abel Magwitch. The names, it's true, have been tinkered with, but the book's literary paternity is unmistakable. So, too, is the postcolonial spin that Carey puts on Dickens's material: this time around, the prodigal Maggs is perceived less as an invading alien than a righteous (if not particularly welcome) refugee.
Of course, rewriting a page-turner from the past offers some major perils, not the least of them being comparisons to the original. Carey, however, more than withstands the test of time, alluding to the formality of Victorian prose without ever bending over backward to duplicate it. In addition, his eye for physical detail--and the ways in which such details open small or large windows onto character--is on par with that of Dickens. Here, for example, he pins down both the body and soul of a household servant: "Miss Mott was lean and sinewy and there was nowhere much for such a violent shiver to hide itself. Consequently it went right up her spine and disappeared inside her little white cap and then, just when it seemed lost, it came out the other side and pulled up the ends of her thin mouth in a grimace." Throw in a wicked mastery of period slang, a subplot about Victorian mesmerism (of which Dickens was, in fact, a practitioner), and an amazing storytelling gift, and you have a novel which meets and exceeds almost any expectation one might bring to it.
From School Library Journal
YA-A bizarre tale set in Dickensian London. Jack Maggs, a foundling who has been trained as a small child to rob wealthy houses, is caught, sentenced for deportation, and forbidden to return to England on pain of execution. At age 15, the helpless young man is on his way to Australia when a 4-year-old orphan shows him a kindness by feeding him from his own meager food supply. The boy's generosity is never forgotten; from Australia, Jack manages to locate him in an English orphanage, arranges for his education and support, and comes to think of the lad as his son. In middle age, Jack defiantly returns to London in search of the boy, now a young man living the life of a gentleman. He encounters Tobias Oates, a famous writer fascinated with the criminal mind who wants to probe his subconscious. In return, Tobias promises to help him find his "son." This story has as many twists and turns as the streets of London, but in the end justice is done and Jack finds peace and contentment back in Australia. Readers familiar with Great Expectations will enjoy making parallels with the classic from which this story is taken and YAs who enjoyed Caleb Carr's The Alienist (Random, 1994) will find in this novel the same authenticity of speech and setting, madcap chases, and surprising plot elements. The major characters, while not always endearing, are always entertaining and colorful.Molly Connally, Kings Park Library, Fairfax County, VA
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.