The year is 1837. The streets and back alleys of London teem with squalid poverty. Jack Maggs, the title character of Peter Carey's arresting new novel, has returned furtively to England, from the penal colony in Australia to which he has been deported for life. An accomplished thief from the earliest days of childhood, the fugitive Maggs easily slips back, unnoticed, into the city. But why, and for whom, has Maggs risked his life to return?
Maggs arrives at his destination, a grand house in Great Queen Street, and finds it vacant. Its master, a young man named Henry Phipps, has dismissed his household and disappeared into the night. But, while lurking on the property, Maggs is mistaken for an applicant for a footman's job by Mercy Larkin, the maid at a neighboring house. He accepts the position, seeing it as an opportunity to wait for Phipps's return in relative secrecy.
Installed in the house of Percival Buckle, a grocer who has become a gentleman through inheritance, Maggs is recruited unwillingly as a subject in some experiments in mesmerization. This early form of hypnosis is the obsession of an up-and-coming novelist named Tobias Oates, who wants to uncover the phantoms he believes are haunting Maggs. Indeed, Maggs has a number of dark secrets and one grand objective, all of which unravel in due time.
From these mysterious beginnings, Jack Maggs takes readers on an unexpected trip into an 18th-century world of privilege and privation, of preconceptions and misapprehension. It would spoil readers' enjoyment of this ambitious novel even to hint at the strange directions in which Carey takes them. I'll only divulge that lost loves, old scores, tragic deaths, and surprise progeny all play a hand in the intertwined fates of Maggs, Oates, Buckle, Phipps, Mercy, and a number of others.
The most remarkable thing about this engrossing book is the novelist's achievement in bringing to life the historical setting. The authority of the work's narrative voice belies its late twentieth century origins. In scope, in tenor, and in narrative inventiveness, Carey writes with the seeming ease of a true Victorian master a Dickens, say, or a Thackeray. Yet, unlike them, he is able to infuse this uncanny 19th-century sensibility with modern psychological insight.
A book that should take its place proudly alongside the other works in Carey's impressive opus, including the Booker Prize-winning Oscar and Lucinda, Jack Maggs is, above all else, a good and challenging read. Which is just what Carey's fans have come to expect.