Saturday, July 05, 2008

Jack Maggs by Peter Carey

'Look at me', said Tobias Oates insistently. 'Look into my eyes - I can take away this pain.' Maggs peered at Oates as if through a heavy veil. The little gent began to wave his hands. He passed them down, up , down. 'Watch me' said Tobias Oates, and Jack Maggs, for once, did exactly as he was told.

Peter Carey's new novel, set in London in 1837, is a thrilling story of mesmerism and possession, of dangerous bargains and illicit love. Jack Maggs, raised and deported as a criminal, has returned from Australia, in secret and at great risk. What does he want after all these years, and why is he so interested in the comings and goings at a plush townhouse in Great Queen Street? And why is Jack himself an object of such interest to Tobias Oates, celebrated author, amateur hypnotist and fellow burglar - in this case of people's minds, of their histories and inner phantoms?

In this hugely engaging novel one of the finest contemporary writers pays homage to his Victorian forebears. As Peter Carey's characters become embroiled in each other's furtive desires and increasing fall under one another's spell, their thirst for love exacts a terrible, unexpected cost.
If I had of been looking at this book on the shelf either at the library or at the bookstore, there is a pretty fair chance that I would never have picked this up. In fact, I had a lot of trouble finding this image and ended up scanning it in. Even at Peter Carey's website where there are over 20 different cover images for this novel, this one isn't up there.

Luckily for me, this book is up for discussion this month at my online book group, and so I felt obliged to look beyond the horrible cover, and actually go with what was inside the book.

At first, I wasn't sure that the contents were much better than the cover art. Most of the characters are for the most part unlikeable, especially in the first parts of the novel. There is Jack Maggs, a convict who has returned from Australia in secret, knowing full well that if he gets caught back in England he will likely swing. He has come to Great Queen Street desperately searching for someone or something, and is willing to make almost any deal in order to find what he is looking for. In a case of mistaken identity, Jack finds himself being employed as a footman in the household of Mr Buckle, a former grocer and fried fish seller who unexpectedly found himself the recipient of a large inheritance so now is doing his best to be a gentleman. Also in the Great Queen Street house is Mercy Larkin - a young woman who Mr Buckle saved from a life of prostitution...kind of. She is a maid, but she is also Mr Buckle's Good Companion, sometimes to her cost. Another of the strange characters is Edward Constable, the other half of the matching set of footman, but he has secrets of his own, and is in grieving for his former footman partner who had recently killed himself.

Into the house comes celebrated author Tobias Oates for a dinner party, along with several other notable names, mainly from the theatrical set. Whilst at the dinner party, Jack Maggs catches Tobias Oates eye, and it isn't long before Tobias has had agreement from Mr Buckley to allow Jack to be the subject of Scientific Experiment using Magnets to in effect hypnotise and then to draw out Jack's secrets. Tobias is however a man with his own secrets, secrets that haunt him and have huge impacts in his home, and tragic consequences for his family.

From here, the tale of Jack Maggs and this cast of somewhat strange characters, are slowly entwined in each others story and what follows is an almost gothic, very dark tale of love, and danger, theft and murder, distrust and deception, with Jack searching for what he thinks it is that he wants, not realising that he has more than that to lose back in Australia.

Ultimately this was a rewarding read, and it is a book that I think would benefit from a reread, as having now read the book once I could appreciate how well Carey drew the connections between the cast of characters, particularly in relation to Jack's adopted family. For example, the very opening scene of the book felt a little disconnected from the major part of the story, until about half way through when it all suddenly made perfect sense.

I have always felt like a bit of a bad Australian at times. I can't stand Vegemite. I am not that fussed about lamingtons or pavlova. I don't watch Neighbours or Home and Away, and I hadn't read very many of our biggest names in literature, including Peter Carey. Whilst I don't see any of the other things I have listed their changing in the near future, I do definitely plan to read more of Peter Carey's works.

Peter Carey is one of the most successful Australian authors around in terms of winning awards, and with this book he won both the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 1998, and the Miles Franklin Award as well (which is Australia's most prestigious literary award).

I ended up giving this book a rating of 4/5. Until the very end I thought that the grade would be a bit lower than that, but ultimately it was an enjoyable reading experience.


  1. You've convinced me I should give it a go Marg

  2. I've only read his Ned Kelly book but loved it so much I would like to read more. This sounds very interesting.

    LOL Re: being a "bad Australian". I often feel the same way about being a "bad Canadian". I do not like Tim Horton's coffee at all, I hate hockey and would not be caught dead in a toque or parka. I also had not read much of the big Can lit names until recently but having started working on the reading while the other things will never change.

  3. Peter Carey has been recommended to me several times in the last few months. This sounds like a book I'd enjoy. One more for the wishlist.

  4. Oh no Marg, you just added another to my TBR. LOL! I also have Oscar and Lucinda on my TBR.