The problem with Jack Maggs (Kindle) isn’t really a problem with the novel – it’s the expectations it’s sold with. The description suggests it’s a “variation on Great Expectations, in which Dickens’s tale is told from the viewpoint of Australian convict Abel Magwitch which isn’t really what I got. What I expected was a close relation. What I got was more like a third cousin twice removed.
There are similarities; Maggs is a convict, transported for life, and has made good in Australia. He’s given a young man, Henry Phipps, a good education and a home to live in (which Maggs owns, interestingly) and has come home to see the ‘son’ he’s adopted and improved. The bare bones of that relationship are the same, but the sinew woven around them is instead the story of a down on his luck penny dreadful novelist who uses hypnotism to get Maggs to tell the story which could make his literary fortune, a maid who fits Victorian tropes perfectly, and the anger of Maggs himself, which is almost a character in its own right.
There were plenty of things this novel did quite well; I really enjoyed the character of Maggs – once I’d accepted he wasn’t who I expected! – and thought his anger at being thrown out of his home country well done. There was plenty I didn’t know or understand about his Australian life, though, and that was a shame. Then again, that was the book I was expecting to read. Some of the ideas about mesmerism were interesting, but not really fully developed, and I thought the maid character had a lot more potential but sadly she drifted into cliche fairly quickly. Some of the language also frustrated me. Carey obviously wasn’t trying to emulate Dickens – wisely – but instead opting for a faux-Victoriana syntax which generally worked well, but there were several jarring moments, mostly to do with slang terms that seemed to my ears far too modern. Perhaps this wasn’t the case; they may well be older words than I expected, but that they felt jarring is for me an indicator that they didn’t fit for one reason or another. There is a decent sense of atmosphere, with Victorian London fairly well evoked in broad brushstrokes.
Others obviously have thought highly of this novel; reviews on Amazon are overwhelmingly positive and it has won several awards, but it just didn’t do it for me. It was a shallow version of a Victorian novel and would inevitably lose out in a stylistic comparison but didn’t explore the depth of character to rise above that.
For me I think it’s a shame – it really epitomises the idea that you have to be careful what you’re offering people because I find it difficult to judge this apart from what I was expecting. If you promise someone a chocolate fudge cake and deliver sticky toffee pudding, it doesn’t matter how delicious it is – it’s not what you’ve built yourself up for, what you’ve started to look forward to. It’s not going to be as satisfying as what you could have had.