Have you ever read a book on a dare? Well, one could say that this was how I found this book. A friend of mine told me that, in his opinion, Peter Carey is the greatest writer in the English language today. He also told me that those writers that I personally admire were all overrated - bit of an insult, that, but I'm always willing to believe that there are those more cultured and intelligent than I. So I decided to see if I could find any of Mr. Carey's books, and the only one in the library was this one - Jack Maggs.
You should know from the outset that Peter Carey received a Booker Prize for his novel "Oscar and Lucinda" that I understand was also made into a movie. Furthermore, the novel that my friend recommended wasn't this or the prizewinner, but rather a book called Illywacker. However, a challenge is a challenge and off the shelf it came and into my hot little hands.
As you can imagine from the title, this is the story of a man by the name of Jack Maggs (well, dur!). In short, Jack is a criminal - a convict who was shipped away from England to Australia for his crimes, but returns to his native 19th century London to contact one Henry Phipps - a young man who was orphaned as a boy and once showed him kindness just before his exile, and whom he has been secretly financially supporting from afar. But Maggs returns to England, despite personal danger, so he can finally reveal and explain himself to his "son", Phipps.
Okay, can you see what I see here? Anyone read any Dickens, perhaps? Maybe you read Great Expectations? Maybe you recall a minor character that plays a major but secret role in the life of young Pip? Do you recall the convict called Magwitch? Think that there are some parallels here? I do. Pip and Phipps, Maggs and Magwitch - two stories taking place in the 19th century dealing with convicts, orphans, exile, secret financial support and painful revelations. But the difference here is that this story isn't told from the side of the growing and prospering lad, but rather from the part of the convict who returns to reveal himself to the young man that once aided him in his hour of need.
Now think about that plot line for a just moment. Its as if Mr. Carey decided to tell the part of Great Expectations that Dickens left out of his novel. If you ask me, I think it almost borders on genius, actually. Unfortunately, great ideas do not always reap great novels, and I'm afraid that this is an example of just such a situation.
While we don't get a fascinating character like Haversham in her dusty and cobwebbed wedding room here, like Dickens gave us in Great Expectations, there are a number of interesting other characters in this book. For instance, there's Mr. Tobias Oates - novelist and journalist who has a dab hand for hypnosis and a passion for studying the criminal mind, while using magnets to try to remove their demons via the manipulation of the "fluids" in the brain that torment them. While I know nothing about the history of this method, I can assume that this was something that was fairly popular in the 19th century, as far-fetched as it may seem to us today.
There's also Percy Buckle, previously a lower class man working in the food markets who came into a fortune, but had the misfortune of purchasing the house next to the residence of Mr. Phipps. He also had the misfortune of having one of his footmen commit suicide. Mr. Buckle tries to put on the airs of being a real gentleman, and insists on having a matched pair of footmen. This opens the door for Maggs to stumble into becoming the replacement for the dead footman. Buckle's other gentlemanly pastime is reading - something that he couldn't indulge in when every spare moment of his life was occupied in trying to make a get-by living. This was why he decided to cultivate the friendship of the writer Oates.
Mr. Buckle's household staff play some interesting parts in this story as well, especially the young Mercy Larkin. Aptly named, she was saved from a life of walking the streets by Buckle, only to become his own personal prostitute. But she doesn't seem to take much in her life all that seriously, until her interest in the new staff member, Maggs, threatens her comfortable position.
So now you have most of your cast of characters, and quite an interesting set of them. They are well inter-connected without too much contrivance, and I'm sure you can already imagine some of the things that will happen in this book.
Firstly, you should know that when you start reading this book, you won't feel like you're reading Dickens. Carey doesn't try to imitate Dickens' style or language, and instead uses clues and references to 19th century England in order to give the flavour of the time, rather than to pretend he was writing during it. I wholly approve of this, because too many times I've read modern novels that seem fake and artificial because the authors tried too hard to make their writing into a literary time machine, and failed miserably. So all kudos for Carey in this aspect.
This isn't to say that I found the whole storytelling to be completely believable, however. My main problem with this book was the feeling that the focus wasn't quite right. What I mean by this is, we seem to be led in one direction and then veer off elsewhere but never seem to get back to that original track. More simply stated, there are a few too many loose ends here. And while hindsight has actually shown me that some of the ends actually did get wrapped up, they certainly didn't come to any type of logical conclusion.
Still confused? Yes, me too. Let me give you an example. At the very beginning of the book there's a scene where Jack visits the home of a woman and has heated words with her and then threatens to return the next day for satisfaction. Carey then tells us that Jack didn't return the next day, but rather it took him several weeks to return. Now we do find him returning later in the book, but the events of his return are not to conclude the dispute but rather for something else altogether. The whole conflict with this woman is dropped and never returned to. Mind you, we do find out more about this woman in the course of the book, but that is mostly to give background to the character of Maggs. See what I mean? The old adage of "if you see a gun in the first act, there had better be a dead body by the end of act two" has been violated here. We are given clues that are dead end streets. While this may be a useful tool in a murder mystery in order to trick the reader into suspecting someone other than the real killer, this doesn't seem to be as effective in the genre of literary fiction.
I also felt a bit cheated with how Carey drew his main character, Jack Maggs himself. While we get a good deal of his background by the very clever device of having Jack write his memoirs to his unsuspecting ward, there are still many holes in his history and personality. What's more, I also found that Jack acted uncharacteristically in several instances. Mind you, this isn't all bad, since it suggests a person who is complex, unpredictable and possibly very deep, which would generally fit the mold that Carey has forged for us. But some things are just not feasible.
For instance, as I mentioned, there are a couple of places in the book where we read Jack's "memoirs" that he is putting in a letter to Phipps. This may not seem strange on the surface, but it raised a big question in my mind. Here's a criminal - one who started his life of crime as a very young boy, and who seemingly never attended any schools and probably didn't have time for schooling after he was deported to Australia because he was making his fortune. Okay, so how did this person not only learn to read and write, but learned it so well that he could pen his memoirs in mirror-writing - yes, like Da Vinci, Maggs writes backwards so that you can only really read it when you look at it in a mirror. Furthermore, he's doing it with a special fading ink that needs to be washed with lemon juice and then heated by a flame in order to be restored. Where exactly did this criminal learn these tricks? See what I mean?
The other major problem I have with this book is that Carey seems to get overly involved with some of the characters that are supposed to be minor ones. I can't say that this is totally disturbing, however, because I found Maggs to be particularly unsympathetic, and the large distraction into the life of Tobias Oates was often a pleasant one for me. But if Maggs is supposed to be the focus of the book, why then do I feel that I understood Oates much more fully than I did Maggs? Perhaps this was another one of Carey's ways of keeping Maggs enigmatic, and therefore interesting. Unfortunately, I found that my feeling about this was that I thought the book should have been called "Tobias Oates" rather than "Jack Maggs", which, I believe, seems to have defeated Carey's purpose here.
While I could go on about the problems I had with this book, I really think that this review is getting a tad long, and perhaps I should conclude here. Let me say that on the positive side, Carey has given us a fascinating story line, a truly colourful cast of characters that are multi-dimensional, and a setting that is brooding and yet romantic, all written in a style that is both accessible and clear. With these pluses it is no wonder that Carey has found himself no small number of faithful fans. But for my part, my opinion of this book was that it wasn't completely polished, left too many questions unanswered (some questions can be left to one's imagination with great effectiveness, but not as many as I found here) and seemed a bit distracted and unfocused.
While I will say that I could still recommend that people read this book, may I suggest that you borrow it from the library rather than purchase it. I'd say, give it a try, but don't put out money for it, as you may be as disappointed as I was.
(Also published on Dooyoo by me)