Peter Carey, an Australian who has lived in New York for several years, continues to write fiction that engages directly or indirectly with his homeland, whatever its subject. He first gained notice in 1974 with a book of experimental short stories, The Fat Man in History, then again in 1979 with another volume of equally fantastic short fiction, War Crimes. These two striking collections, widely acclaimed in Australia and overseas, previewed the breadth and inventive structure of his work once he turned to full-length fiction.
His first major novel, Illywhacker (1986), covers the history of 150 or so years of European settlement in Australia through a whimsical revision of fact and myth, told through the eyes of an “illywhacker” (Australian slang for a con artist or carnival spieler). In 1988, Carey received the Booker Prize for Oscar and Lucinda, which follows the misadventures of a nineteenth century Australian couple who attempt to defy colonial reality by moving a glass church into the outback, where so fragile a symbol of civilization shatters. His next novel, The Tax Inspector (1991), centers on contemporary Sydney to depict private and public corruption. In The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith (1994), Carey invents a postcolonial nation called Efica and its powerful ally, Voorstand; through this contrivance, he subtly handles the perceived neocolonialism that Australia undergoes at the hands of the United States.
Thus it is no surprise to Carey’s readers that his 1998 novel, Jack Maggs, embraces the nineteenth century as its period but at the same time focuses on modern Australia’s relationship with the larger world—in particular, the Australian search for national identity. While this quest has occupied Carey throughout his career, he has managed to masquerade the recurrent theme in varied guises.
Widely reviewed in English-speaking countries, Jack Maggs received undue notice from critics for its debt to Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1860-1861). Granted, the newly minted Maggs owes his origins to the beleaguered convict Magwitch in the Dickens novel, just as Phipps represents another version of Magwitch’s surrogate son Pip; parallels with other characters in the earlier book have also been drawn, but highlighting such likenesses is not especially useful. Carey’s creation of the rising young writer Tobias Oates also led reviewers to speculate on how extensively Oates in both his professional and personal life resembles Dickens. Yet, once all these similarities have been pointed out, Carey’s expansion of the classic novel stands on its own, first as a lively and rousing story, then as a narrative with a strong subtext that examines not only the nature of fiction writing but also the uncertain identity and precarious condition of a postcolonial nation such as Australia.
Although a product of the late twentieth century, Jack Maggs resembles a work from earlier times with its mannered prose, its vivid details that re-create nineteenth century England, its meticulous development of character, and its old-fashioned narrative force. The story begins as Maggs returns to London after spending twenty-four years in Australia, first as a convict, then as a free man once he had completed his sentence. It was the practice in the early 1800’s to transport criminals to the farflung British colony in the antipodes. Once the convicts had completed their sentences, they were required to remain in Australia; if they dared return to England, they would be hanged. Some of the former convicts wasted away the rest of their lives as free men or women, carousing, drinking, and longing to go “home”—that is, to the England that had rejected them. Others adjusted and prospered in the developing colony. Maggs belongs to the latter company; he set up a brick-making factory in rapidly growing Sydney and accumulated a fortune. Like the first group, though, he still dreams of “home . . . the long mellow light of English summer” and would “build London in his mind . . . brick by brick.” Rebelling against the harsh life on the world’s underside, Maggs declares: “I am not of that race. . . . The race of Australians.” His passion is to see the orphan, now a grown man living in London, who had befriended him on his...
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