by Peter Carey
Category: Fiction / Historical
328 pages; ISBN: 0-571-19377-3
Rating: 7/10 (Ratings explained)
Peter Carey's seventh novel is set in London 1837 where a transported convict named Jack Maggs has returned in secret (but not for long) for a rendez-vous with a young society gentleman named Henry Phipps.The latter not being home,Maggs takes advantage of an unlikely opportunity to hide out as a footman in the household of colourful characters next door.
From this point on the reasons for Maggs's return slowly become clear as the complex plot unwinds and I must be careful not to give too much of it away.What I can say is that Carey proves himself a great story-teller revealing the secrets using a variety of technical devices. The latter part of the novel creates a genuine excitement despite a dearth of sympathetic characters. Carey also stays true to his idiom with only the explicit references to sodomy and abortion betraying the novel's present day origins.
It is only when you put the book down at the end that you realise just how many holes in the plot there are. There is no clear explanation of why Phipps takes great pains to avoid Maggs; he appears to have more to gain by being found. A wife witnesses her husband's murder and doesn't bother to tell anyone about it. A mild-mannered and benevolent bookworm becomes a would-be murderer in the space of a few pages. Maggs's predecessor has blown his brains out and no one seems particularly interested in the reasons why.
I then begin to wonder if Carey has really come up with a sophisticated satire on the Victorian novel. Maggs himself is a bizarre mix of Heathcliff and Magwitch (note the similarity between the names) and the revelation of Maggs's connection with Phipps (not too far from Pip either), an outrageous contrivance, can easily be read as a subversion of Great Expectations, Similarly Maggs' upbringing has strong echoes of Oliver Twist (with a Fagin character called Silas) except that Oliver grows up to be Bill Sikes instead.
Jack Maggs is certainly worth reading but don't take it too seriously.
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