Peter Kemp

Peter Kemp, Sunday Times, September 21, 1997, Sunday

Bringing together a motley throng of vigorously alive characters in a 19th-century London of pea-souper fogs and flaring gaslights, escutcheoned carriages in the West End and child-felons in the slums of Seven Dials, Jack Maggs is the most Dickensian novel Dickens never wrote. Freakish figures with quirky mannerisms and odd names – Mrs Halfstairs, Captain Constable – lurk in skewwhiff little rooms or down narrow corridors lined with ancient, mildewed ballgowns. Out on the mud flats of the Thames, scavengers find curious jetsam, such as an infant dropped from London Bridge. Strange legacies and outlandish lawyers twist lives in fateful new directions. In the foreground are cosy snuggeries and convivial dinner tables replete with steaming tureens of eel soup. In the background, overshadowing the capital’s warrens of gin-sodden destitution and lawlessness, is the gallows.

The person most at risk of dancing “the Newgate Jig” from its dangling noose, Jack Maggs, is a character who has side-stepped into Peter Carey’s mind from Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. A version of Magwitch, the convict transported to Botany Bay in Dickens’s book, he now becomes central to a novel that takes an enthralled, acute and aslant look at the imaginative psychology of the writer who has so enrichingly influenced Carey. Like Dickens, Carey smuggles his convict back into England to meet the protege whose rise in society he has funded, with wealth gained in Australia, because of a long-ago kindness. Unlike Dickens, Carey also brings his convict into contact with a flashily dressed young Cockney author, who is just beginning to captivate the nation with his novels.

Titus Oates – “the Prodigy” – is instantly recognisable as a permutation of Dickens. Living with his ill-suited wife and her younger sister, whom he idolises, he has had a comfortless childhood for which he now compensates by near-manic celebration of the pleasures of family and friends. Alongside these domestic instincts, anarchic impulses quiver. Energy almost visibly vibrates from him (he is a believer in “animal magnetism” and has pow ers as a mesmerist). Romping through formidable amounts of work, he travels hectically, darts around London from its plush townhouses to its fetid rookeries, and is fascinated by the gruesome (he has toured the Paris morgue, and among the specimens of human disorderliness stored in his neat pigeonholes is a thief’s hand purchased from a shop in Whitechapel). The “criminal mind” entrances him.

Given this, a chance encounter with Maggs, a clandestine “bolter from New South Wales”, seems a godsend. Soon, Oates is ransacking him of his secrets and emotional privacies. And, as the ruthless larceny of the novelist is counterpointed with Maggs’s humiliated memories of the robberies he was coerced into as a boy, the book brims up with sympathy for the exploited. In his fin-est feat yet of sensitive, utterly unsentimental involvement with the damaged and cast-out, Carey keeps you aware of the lash-scarred back under Maggs’s swagger clothes and bruiser demeanour, and of the maltreated decency and dignity deeper still.

Other luckless social casualties – girl-prostitutes, a suicidal homosexual, a woman crazed by penury – are caught sight of as Carey sends his narrative brilliantly zigzagging through an often dark world. Small victims of an orphanage fire chillingly exhibit the ravages of official neglect: a tot lying “in her little box with all the solemnity of a matron at the communion rail”, a boy’s corpse, “wet, bubbled, like meat, the blue-white bones broken through the charred and blistered skin”. The emblematically named Ma Britten, a purveyor of miscarriage pills, aborts potential in many ways. Less allegorical malignity is also surveyed: a gripping subplot records the deterioration of a dapper, benign bookworm into a shameful, jealous antagonist of Maggs.

What saves Maggs is the pluck and good sense of a servant girl who induces him to jettison his fantasies about his surrogate English “son” and go back to his real offspring in Australia. Colonial concerns are common in fiction nowadays. So are harkings back, via sequels and prequels, to classic works. Ingeniously melding these two preoccupations, Carey galvanises the result into something uncommonly exciting and engaging.

As much as anyone now writing, he is a master of story-telling. His empathy with his characters, combined with his psychological sharp-sightedness, has them almost jumping off the page in full human complexity. An especial bonus is his style. Carey uses words as a virtuoso artist uses line and pigment – to graphically visual effect: a nocturnal prowler’s “heavy limbs bled into the darkness”; sliding from a roof, a woman “skittered towards the guttering, her skirt ballooning out like a spill of ink, her pale hands flapping fish-like against the tiles”. Vivid, exact, unexpected images and language match the quick, witty intelligence flickering through this novel, and make it a triumph of ebullient indictment, humane insight and creative generosity.

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