There's more than a dash of Dickens to Peter Carey's hugely enjoyable new novel: He has retold Great Expectations with many new twists and from a different point of view. The character Jack Maggs, like Dickens's Magwitch, is an escaped convict. Transported to Australia, he has sneaked back to London, risking execution, to find Henry Phipps (a decadent version of Pip), a young man of leisure with a mysterious benefactor. Unlike Dickens, Carey lets the convict take center stage, and he proves a dangerous, beguiling hero.
The lively supporting cast includes an irrepressible kitchen maid "with a pretty sweep to her back and a soft, white neck"; a "humble grocer" transformed into a bookish gentleman by an unexpected legacy; and a talented, ambitious writer with slippery ethics and a scientific interest in mesmerism. The writer hopes Jack's secrets will yield the key to the Criminal Mind. Meanwhile the reader, hooked by the tale of Jack's childhood training as a silver thief, can barely wait to learn what happens next.
This is Carey's sixth novel and his most accessible. He obviously wrote it with entertainment in mind, and he hits the mark on every page. (Knopf, $24)