Frank Kermode

  • Jack Maggs by Peter Carey
    Faber, 328 pp, £15.99, September 1997, ISBN 0 571 19088 X

According to its dust-jacket, Jack Maggs is ‘by the author of Oscar and Lucinda’. It is in some respects unlike that novel, being shorter, darker and less furiously though still adequately inventive. Its economy may shock some folk, for Peter Carey is known to be an exuberant novelist, copious, various and fantastic. It is possible to admire his books for their lack of respect for boundaries, for the qualities they share with the work of modern Latin American novelists. However, they are always Australian. Antipodean glossaries are sometimes needed. The Old World is usually present for purposes of unfavourable comparison, implied rather than stated. There is a detectable ground-bass in almost all these fictions: despite the privations, indignities and suffering imposed on it by its colonists, all the repression they continued to exert until quite recently, all that self-consciousness about being the refuge of ‘second-rate Europeans’, Australia can at last be interested primarily in its own othernesses, in what occurs in a culture that is as remote from the protocols of the mother country (not that the expression can now be used without irony) as its fauna are from those of Europe. It took time for Australians to insist in this way on difference rather than resemblance: a point gently made by Carey when speaking of an autobiographical Sydney writer who chose to dwell on her eight months in Paris and ignore her 28 years in Australia. ‘Typical,’ he remarks; ‘but we will not go into that now.’

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