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Jack Maggs Hardcover – January 27, 1998

3.7 out of 5 stars 66 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1st American ed edition (January 27, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679440089
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679440086
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.1 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (66 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,298,011 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on March 20, 2001
Format: Paperback
Jack Maggs arrives in London carrying a dark secret in his baggage. He's escaped the ferocity of Captain Logan's Moreton Bay penal colony. Maggs also carries evidence that Logan inflicted more whippings than any other camp commandant in the colony. His back betokens applications of the "double cat". Invented in Australia, the multi-stranded lash was used to discipline the lags. If caught, Maggs'll immediately be hanged, but his quest overcomes his fear of the noose. He's seeking someone important in his life. But fate throws impediments in his way. Among them is Peter Carey's appropriation of Charles Dickens as an investigative journalist.
Carey's engrossing story is his finest effort. He's created a character that only an author imbued with accounts of transportee [convicts, lags] travails could achieve. The Australian penal colony system was the antithesis of our concept of Victorian morality. Escaped prisoners were rare in Australia - there was nowhere to go. A lag returning to England was unheard of. In any case, the character of every lag underwent a change. They became two people; one the Englishman of a previous life and the other the result of the dehumanizing conditions suffered in that remote continent. Carey captures that duality with finesse and ardor. Driven by his quest, Maggs must adopt a servant's mien, even as his past experiences and cunning born of survival places him above the devious people he encounters daily. He has, after all, been sent to Australia, not for his crimes, but through an unparalleled act of self sacrifice. Maggs must mentally dodge and weave, moving between the worlds of Percy Buckle, Tobias Oates and the street urchin he was before being sent across the seas.
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Format: Hardcover
I always expect the same things from Peter Carey novels: great characters, poetic language, and an imaginative premise. Jack Maggs delivers on each of these. His protagonist is a criminal with a painful past, but a good heart -- not exactly original, but Carey brings such life to his creation the reader can feel Maggs' presence on every page. His pain is a real thing, and drives the novel. It's also interesting to watch him enter the lives of a few ordinary Londoners, and change their paths, and even their personalities, simply by virtue of his presence.
Tobias Oates (intended as a fictional Charles Dickens) is also very well developed, and very human. Carey has a talent for making his characters capable of both good and evil, and by the novel's end, it's difficult to pin any of his cast as either heroes or villains.
While this novel is based on a character in Charles Dicken's Great Expectations, I think its unfair to compare the two books. Jack Maggs is not a Dickens rip-off: the characters, the voice, the language, the humour, are Carey's own. There has been an attempt by Carey to sketch a London similar, in spirit, to Dickens', but this is a book with its own emotional centre, and it stands on its own.
After reading some of the reviews here, I was surprised to find that the novel did not drag, and that it quickly became a page-turner. The plot steadily builds, with several well-placed and effective twists to keep things interesting (and unpredictable). Carey has managed, again, to lead me into a climax I could not predict, and while the scene had incredible potential, I think it lacks. He seems to rush through it. This is not Carey's best novel (see Bliss) but it is very good indeed, and worth reading if only for Carey's incredible use of the language, which is economical, poetic, and poignant, and also for the characters, which in many cases rise above the subject matter.
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Format: Paperback
Peter Carey thinks that, because Charles Dickens developed so many of his memorable characters from real life sketches, the convict Jack Maggs from Great Expectations must have had a non-fiction antecedent. He turns this conceit on end by making Jack Maggs the center of this novel and fictionalizing a Dickens-like character, Tobias Oats, to write about him.
Likewise, Pipp becomes Henry Phipps--here transformed to a dissolute and ungrateful young man. Other Dickensian figures abound. It had soon had me scratching my head and trying to remember more of Great Expectations. But you really don't need this to appreciate this deft and caring portrait. You do need to recognize that the peculiar mis-match between England and Australia is at the heart of Carey's fiction. And because the original Australians were the rejected children of Georgian England, the theme of failed parenthood recurs with particular bitterness. This gets expressed in the novel by the ironic inability of Oats and other Englishmen to understand, let alone appreciate Maggs and his working class--or criminal class brethren.
Like the rather more substantial Oscar and Lucinda, the novel Jack Maggs develops memorable characters and presents them with great emotional challenges. The pace is quicker this time, but overall less powerful. The landscape of London in the 1830's is drawn economically, but very believably. Where the ending of Oscar and Lucinda was almost too heartbreaking, here we get a more hopeful close that turns on the real demand of fatherhood.
Reading this novel is a fine way to spend a chilly evening by the fire this winter.
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