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Novel Gives the Dickens To Historical Fiction

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By Peter Carey

Alfred A. Knopf

306 pp., $24

Peter Carey's latest novel, "Jack Maggs," roars by with all the beauty and violence of a summer thunderstorm.

Just as English playwright Tom Stoppard plucked Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from the periphery of Shakespeare's "Hamlet," so Carey has created a stunning story about the convict who surreptitiously adopts Pip in Charles Dickens's "Great Expectations."

The novel opens on the day Jack Maggs risks execution by returning from exile in Australia to find the young Londoner he has supported lavishly for years.

When Jack finds his adopted son's house empty, he takes employment next door in the chaotic household of a bookish grocer, who's looking for a footman of exactly the right height to complete a matching set.

Struck by a devastating attack of pain during his first official duty, Jack receives treatment by a dinner guest, Toby Oates, a wildly popular novelist and amateur practitioner of animal magnetism.

Toby claims that "no mesmeric act on earth will have anyone perform an act against their moral temper," but from that moment until the book's incendiary conclusion, Jack endures a parasitic relationship with the young hypnotist who determined to plunder Jack's inflamed mind for material to use in his next novel.

A servant in the writer's house explains her master's obsession with others' lives.

"He cannot help himself," she tells Jack. "He saw your livery, and thought: There's a chap with dirty livery. Just what you would think or I would think, but Mr. Oates, he can't stop there - he's thinking, how did that fatty-spot get on his shoulder? He's wondering, in what circumstances were the stockings torn? He's looking at you like a blessed butterfly he has to pin down on his board. It is not that he hasn't got a heart. But he is an author, as I'm sure you don't need telling, and he must know your whole life story or he will die of it."


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