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Review: Dodger November 29, 2012

Posted by ccbooks in Book Reviews.
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The Victorian era is a period in history that I find fascinating and I like to think I know more than an average number of odd facts about it.  I was familiar, for example, with the ‘toshers,’ the group of people who made a living by sifting through the sewers for money, jewelry or other things they could sell. Leave it to Terry Pratchett, the master of the mix-it-up story to bring toshers and millionaires, novelists and architects together in one brilliant mixed-up novel. Dodger is a warm-hearted romp through London, both the good and the bad.

Dodger is a tosher, with more luck than most people in London. His life changes at the start of the book, when he emerges from the sewers to spy two rough henchmen pursuing a runaway girl. Appointing himself her savior, he falls in with up and coming journalist Charles Dickens and social historian Henry Mayhew to protect the girl, who calls herself Simplicity. In trying to ascertain who is pursuing Simplicity and how to keep her safe, Dodger finds himself climbing out of the sewers and among a cast list of London’s famous and infamous; among others, he runs into Sweeney Todd, Benjamin Disraeli, heiress Angela Burdett-Coutts and eventually the Queen herself. Gradually he becomes used to Savile Row suits and dinner tables with multiple forks, but when he has to come up with a plan to fake Simplicity’s death, his talents and standing as a prince of the underworld help him achieve his goal.

Pratchett vividly evokes London of the nineteenth century where “the streets were so crowded that you were rubbing shoulders with people until you had no shoulders left.” Dodger knows everyone, from the flower sellers and mudlarks to owners of pawnshops and the more shady characters who will steal or maim people, for a price. He is vividly characterized as a straightforward boy who understands his world, is immensely loyal and not afraid of change. In the long list of historical and fictional characters, I’m sure there were references I missed and Pratchett leaves some of them, such as Dodger’s particular friend Solomon Cohen, open to a certain amount of interpretation. Understated humor abounds and a few well-placed footnotes (concerning, among other things the Sin of Onan) prompt the reader to learn more on their own. Pratchett’s author’s note elaborates on some of the historical figures who appear and also waxes lyrical on such topics as the England’s old system of money.

A few quibbles: I wish Pratchett had somehow managed to squeeze in where Angela Burdett-Coutts got her fortune from. The money was left to her by a female relative who was an actress, a splendid irony considering how actors were considered thoroughly second class in Victorian England. My other quibble is more substantial. I have to admit, I never quite fell in love with Simplicity. Maybe I kept comparing her to Tiffany Aching, a very strong-minded Pratchett heroine. Simplicity can be strong-minded, and speaks up for herself when necessary, but she spends most of the book in hiding and accepts all of Dodger’s plans to save her. I know, this is Dodger’s book, but the romance just seemed a little too…Victorian? Simple? Maybe that’s my own preferences speaking.

If you know and love Pratchett, you will not be disappointed. If you enjoy historical fiction with a few improbabilities, humor and warmth, and a story where the bad guys are thoroughly trounced, then this is a book for you.

Tiny side note: I started reading this book directly after finishing a history of London ‘below’ (the Underground system, sewers, etc.) where I came across many references to Henry Mayhew and his work on London’s poor. Imagine my surprise, to open Dodger and discover Mr. Mayhew again in fictional form! It’s the literary equivalent of meeting someone new in a college class and then running into them everywhere else on campus.

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