Jack Maggs by Peter Carey (1997) 392 p.
On a drizzly spring evening in 1837, the mysterious figure known as Jack Maggs makes his long-awaited return to London. Where he has been and why he has returned we do not know yet, but the first few pages of Jack Maggs are a delight to read, capturing the sights, sounds and smells of Dickensian London, and Maggs’ disorientation as he returns to a city he does not recognise, lit now with gas light: “The city had become a fairground, and as the coach crossed the river at Westminster the stranger saw that even the bridges of the Thames were illuminated.”
‘Dickensian’ is usually used alongside ‘Victorian’ to describe a particular era of the 19th century, but here it’s even more appropriate: Jack Maggs is a reimagining of Dickens’ novel Great Expectations, with Maggs being a version of the convict character Magwitch. He has escaped from New South Wales to find his beloved Henry Phipps (Pip) and tell him his story – but Phipps may not want to be found.
It’s a common trait, I think, for people to partition history into segments, and also think back on the history of particular places as being self-contained. We know that 18th century Britain gave birth to the convict colonies of Australia, but the idea of them existing at the same time – for them being anything other than a one-way dumping ground – is fuzzy. And so it’s always a pleasure, I find, particularly in Peter Carey’s writing, to see the two worlds collide. Australia sheds its image (in my mind and many other Australians’ minds) as a dull and unimportant backwater and instead becomes a mysterious, exotic place. Most of the novel takes place in the upper-class dining rooms and parlours of Covent Garden and Bloomsbury, and it’s always pleasingly strange when Carey calls Maggs “the Australian” or mentions memories of Maggs’ time there – pelicans and parrots, his reliable old boots from a cobbler in Parramatta, or the dreaded prison at Morton Bay.
I haven’t read any Dickens at all, but it’s a mark of Carey’s brilliance as a writer that he can revisit old stories and classics and reimagine them without alienating an uninformed reader. You don’t need to have read Great Expectations to enjoy Jack Maggs, just as you don’t need to know anything about Ned Kelly to enjoy True History of the Kelly Gang or (I imagine) be familiar with the writings of Tocqueville to enjoy Parrot and Olivier in America.
I didn’t enjoy Bliss, I originally said True History of the Kelly Gang was “the product of a slow year for the Booker Prize” only to have it grow stronger in retrospect, and I was sometimes bored during Oscar and Lucinda but knew upon completing it that it was a great novel. Jack Maggs was a novel I thoroughly enjoyed (though it lacks the overall, retrospective solidity of Carey’s two Booker Prize winners), and I think Carey is fast becoming one of my favourite authors. I’d certainly agree with those who call him Australia’s greatest living writer.