JACK MAGGS
By Peter Carey
Knopf (306 pp.)

Reviewed by Anthony Smith (5/98)

So this is what all the hype is about.

I mean, here's a novel that I heard raves about when it was released. So I was glad to get a chance to read it. It is a wonderful book, written with great style and heart. It is definitely worth all that hype.

Peter Carey is an Australian author who has written several critically acclaimed novels, including Oscar and Lucinda, on which a recent movie was based. With Jack Maggs, he is committing what some might see as a "literary trick." The character Jack Maggs is the criminal whom young Pip encounters in Great Expectations, by Dickens. What Carey has done is write an original story from Jack's side of things, picking up when Jack arrives back in London after escaping exile in Australia.

The style is contemporary while still able to conjure up a portrait of England in 1837 that lives and breaths. Wonderful prose throughout, seeing through Jack Magg's eyes, but in the third person. We are able to see him and his place in this world. One interesting device here is the letter composed to Mr. Phipps, the young Pip, whom Maggs is waiting for to arrive back home. He has become accidently employed at the house next door to the Phipps residence while they are gone for the season. So he sneaks into the Phipps place at night to compose an autobiography to Phipps in invisible ink. His language is an interesting counterpoint to the rest of the novel.

Carey also throws a young, famous author into the mix, one Tobias Oates (Dickens, we guess?) who begins to "study" Jack Maggs in an unusual way, using hypnotism. Add to that the household staff of Percy Buckle, an eccentric man who hires Maggs, and there is a wonderful, unusual cast of characters in the novel that makes this one of the year's best books.

It is not a crime novel in the traditional sense, even though it has an air of mystery to it. The lead character is indeed a criminal, but the story is a very personal one. I recommend this to any one who enjoys historical novels, Dickens, or just plain great writing. Knowing Great Expectations (the "real" one, and not that horrid Ethan Hawke movie. Of course, every EH movie is horrid...) helps, but is not necessary to the enjoyment of this book.


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