One of Peter Carey’s prizewinning novels, Jack Maggs tells the story of a convict recently returned, under penalty of death, to England from New South Wales. Jack Maggs is in search of his ‘son’, an orphan boy whose advancement in life has been funded from the fortune he made in Australia. Sound familiar? As the title tells you this book is inspired by Great Expectations. Loosely. So loosely in fact that for the first three quarters I suspected it may have been a cynical ploy to garner attention. Towards the end the debt to Great Expectations, and the story of Pip and Jack Maggs, becomes more important. Perhaps Carey was genuinely inspired and thought it better to acknowledge it openly than attempt to be subtle and run the risk of copying accusations. Still, naming the book Jack Maggs is pretty obvious, you can’t tell me the name recognition doesn’t count for something on bookshelves. Cynical? Perhaps.
However call this a single stormy cloud on a wide Aussie sky because I thought it was a fabulous book.
Carey ties in the tale of an author, one Tobias Oates, who will one day write a novel about Jack Maggs. Oates is in his mid-twenties and already a successful novelist, as was Charles Dickens at that age. They both had difficult childhoods with fathers in prison (Oates) or debtors’ prison (Dickens). The parallels are many but subtle and if you knew nothing about Dickens (or indeed, Great Expectations) it would not impinge on your understanding if this novel. It does however illustrate the deftness with which Carey has woven together his story with both the book and its creator, something I think that only becomes apparent on reflection.
Maggs is a fantastic creation, a disturbed and dangerous mind, capable of violence but very human and very vulnerable. We learn much more about Maggs in the latter stages of the novel. However he remains opaque, while Oates’s greed, ambition and sordid home life are laid bare for us. Oates sees Maggs as his meal ticket; he will steal the thief’s story and make it his great novel. This, however, will lead him into a power struggle with Maggs which he is never capable of winning. It is this potent combination of two very desperate men that lies at the heart of this novel. Carey’s character work sets him in good stead. It is this rather than clever inter-textual referencing that ultimately make this book shine.