A review of Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs

The Woos Hazel 2

No pictures of books today.  The cover of Jack Maggs isn’t that great.  Besides, I wanted to take a minute to pay tribute to my dearly departed cat-friends.  Hazel, Anastasia, Maxwell, Ernie, Bert, and Sasha were all research cats from the cat colony where I worked before vet school.  When Maxwell exited my life on June 2nd, it was the end of an era.  I have had a cat colony cat, or five, or thirty, in my heart since the summer of 1996.  That’s seventeen years, close to half my life, of living with these cats.  These beautiful, sweet, dog-like, fat-ass cats.  When I lost Maxwell, it was almost like I lost all of them all over again.  I know people may think I’m just a crazy cat lady for saying all this, but I don’t care.  Anyone who knew my colony cats, or any colony cat for that matter, would say the exact same thing.

And without further ado, here is the reason why you guys all probably came to the blog today: my review of Peter Carey’s fine novel, Jack Maggs.

Bethany bought this book for me for Christmas in 1997 or 1998.  This was shortly after we’d discovered this amazing new website where they sold books and mailed them to you and they were way cheaper than in the stores.  Maybe you’ve heard of it.  It’s called amazon.com?  For a couple of years we ordered each other a bunch of books for Christmas gifts.  Bethany got me this one because I had just finally finished reading Great Expectations in my nineteenth century British novel class, and this book was new, and sort of a reimagining of the book from the convict Magwitch’s perspective.  And this lovely book has sat on my bookshelf since the winter of 1998.  After rereading Great Expectations for the March AP Challenge, it seemed like as good a time as any to take on Jack Maggs, with GE being fresh in my mind and all.

I started this at the same time as Anna Karenin(a), but ended up mostly avoiding it in favor of the Russian tome until I got to the midway point in Anna Karenin(a) and needed to take a break.  I have quite a few Peter Carey books sitting on the shelf that I have accumulated over the years, but this is the first one I’ve read.  This book did nothing to discourage me from reading more Peter Carey fiction.  It also didn’t make me want to read through his entire oeuvre RIGHT NOW.  Jack Maggs was definitely enjoyable: reasonably fast-paced historical fiction with a bit of a mystery.  I went into it expecting it to more closely mirror the plot of Great Expectations, which it did and didn’t.  Jack Maggs’ tale of deportation to Australia and meeting Henry Phipps when he is a boy is very similar to Magwitch meeting Pip, but that’s basically the end of the similarities.  If I hadn’t known it was a cousin to Great Expectations, I doubt I would have made the connection right away.  That’s not a criticism, really, just an observation.  It’s better that Carey didn’t try to make his novel exactly the same as the “original.”  There are much more subtle similarities, and that makes the book itself something of a mystery.

The Tobias Oates character is a version of Charles Dickens: an investigative reporter turned novelist with a terrible marriage.  Of course I didn’t know Dickens had a terrible marriage until I looked into it while I was reading this book.  The similarities between Toby and Dickens interested me more than those between Jack and Magwitch, actually.  Toby’s special interest as a writer is collecting stories from convicts.  It seems that the Victorians were quite obsessed with true crime stories.  And the manner in which Toby collects these stories is along more macabre lines than one would imagine.  It’s called Somnambulism.  Victorians were into some weird things.  Somnambulism is essentially hypnosis.  With magnets.  Toby uses this method to elicit stories from his subjects, which apparently made them more likely to tell the truth than they would if interviewed while in a normal state of consciousness.  Jack Maggs is apparently an excellent Somnambulist for whatever reason.  This aspect of the book was probably my favorite.  The weirdness of the Victorian era and the stuff they were into fascinates me.

Henry Phipps vs. Pip.  Now this was interesting.  Why would Carey make the hero of Great Expectations into a sniveling brat?  Let me modify.  Pip was a sniveling spoiled brat for a lot of the book, but once he met Magwitch and got to know him he matured into an honorable man.  Unfortunately, there appears to be no hope for Henry Phipps.  Just when I thought he was going to see the light at the end of the novel, he tries to murder his benefactor.

I did appreciate that in this version of the story, the criminal with a heart of gold character does get a happy ending, rather than dying in prison as in Great Expectations.  It’s not as he imagined it would be when he returned to England initially, but it’s still happy.  And I always enjoy a happy ending.

And here is the point in my post that I want to stop and publish a partial post like Bethany has been doing lately.  The difference, of course, is that I am hardly as prolific a reader as she is, and as such don’t really think it’s acceptable for me to just stop in the middle because I don’t have anything else to say.  But you know what?  I think I’m going to do it just this once.

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This entry was posted in Authors, Fiction - general, Fiction - Historical, Fiction - literary, Peter Carey, Reviews by Jill. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A review of Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs

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