This is an updated version of Dickens' “Great Expectations” told from the point of view of the criminal, Magwitch. Jack Maggs is both the title of the book and the main character. He is the equivalent of the Magwitch character in “Great Expectations.” As an Australian it was natural that Peter Carey felt more sympathy toward the British criminal transported to Australia, and he didn't feel that the classic Dickens book did justice to the Magwitch character.
The book opens with Jack Maggs returning to London in 1837. He's not supposed to be there, and he's risking hanging by returning to England. However, he'd decided that after years of sending money to Henry Phipps in England, he's decided that it is time to foster some sort of relationship with his beneficiary.
When he was a young man, Maggs had been transported to Australia. While there he was married and began a family of his own. He also made his fortune through a brickmaking business, and could use his wealth to benefit the young Henry Phipps. Maggs is obsessed with Phipps, and thinks of him as a son, largely because he's been dispossessed of his home country. Whatever else Phipps might be, he is an Englishman, and Maggs still thinks of himself as an Englishman as well, so he's spent years trying to benefit Phipps.
When Maggs returns, he meets Tobias Oates, a second-rate novelist that Maggs hopes to use to locate Phipps. Oates will use Maggs story to create a new piece of fiction that he hopes will make his fortune.
Oates is a replacement for Dickens himself. He is very focused on money and is desperate to promote himself above his station. Unlike Dickens, he is also not very talented. It is also made clear that at least some of Oates obsessions with money and status are the result of the society that he's living in.
In fact, societal norms are also having a major effect on Maggs and other characters in the novel. At this period of time, there was a significant change in the class structure of England. Despite of the ways that Victorian England is often portrayed, it was actually a very tumultuous time. The novel deals with the fluidity of English class structure more honestly than an actual Victorian novel could.
Oates is fascinated with mesmerism, a 19th century version of hypnosis. He convinces Maggs to participate so that he can get further information from him regarding his past life. Maggs is reluctant, but he also hopes that, in some way, mesmerism can help him locate Phipps.
Truth is, that nothing will help Maggs find Phipps, who is trying hard not to be found. It's not completely clear, but Phipps is trying to avoid his past completely, as if it was widely known how he'd become a gentleman, he wouldn't be considered a gentleman anymore.
After a number of adventures that look at Victorian society with a modern sensibility, Maggs lets the matter go, and returns home. This conflicts with the Dickens character of Magwitch, who, in “Great Expectations,” dies tragically. Instead Maggs returns to his family in Australia. There is an explanation of how Maggs does, and though it is clear that the family isn't perfect, Maggs' can certainly be considered a success.
Best part of story, including ending:
I really enjoyed “Great Expectations,” and though this book is nothing like it, it has some of the same kind of extreme characters and extremely enjoyable writing as Dickens' novel. However, it radically updates the sensibilities of the Victorian novel, dealing with abortion, homosexuality and rape. So it's not necessarily pleasant, but it is definitely more realistic.
Best scene in story:
The scene at the beginning of the book where Jack arrives in London. He's a mystery both to the other passengers in the carriage and to the reader. All the passengers speculate on the purpose of his trip to London, examining his enormous shoulders, rough face and fine clothes. One thinks he's a farmer, and another a servant wearing his master's old clothes. The reader, as yet, doesn't even know his name.
Opinion about the main character:
Throughout the novel you're itching for Jack Maggs to drop his illusions and return back to Australia. It's sometimes hard to understand why he has to put himself through so much before he can come to the point where he goes back home. However, his love for Phipps and his original country of England makes him likable. He can be angry and deluded, but he's ultimately still a likable character.