As a novelist, Peter Carey is hardly a stranger to the 19th century: his Oscar and Lucinda was a veritable treasure-trove of Victoriana. In this novel, however, Carey has set himself an even more complicated task–reimagining not only a vanished era but one of that era’s masterpieces.
Jack Maggs is a variation on Great Expectations, in which Dickens’s tale is told from the viewpoint of Australian convict Abel Magwitch. The names, it’s true, have been tinkered with, but the book’s literary paternity is unmistakable.
So, too, is the postcolonial spin that Carey puts on Dickens’s material: this time around, the prodigal Maggs is perceived less as an invading alien than a righteous (if not particularly welcome) refugee.
Of course, rewriting a page-turner from the past offers some major perils, not the least of them being comparisons to the original. Carey, however, more than withstands the test of time, alluding to the formality of Victorian prose without ever bending over backward to duplicate it. In addition, his eye for physical detail–and the ways in which such details open small or large windows onto character–is on par with that of Dickens.
Here, for example, he pins down both the body and soul of a household servant: “Miss Mott was lean and sinewy and there was nowhere much for such a violent shiver to hide itself.
Consequently it went right up her spine and disappeared inside her little white cap and then, just when it seemed lost, it came out the other side and pulled up the ends of her thin mouth in a grimace.” Throw in a wicked mastery of period slang, a subplot about Victorian mesmerism (of which Dickens was, in fact, a practitioner), and an amazing storytelling gift, and you have a novel which meets and exceeds almost any expectation one might bring to it.