Book review: Outstanding, but minus the usual sparkle

May 23, 2013

Take a character out of London’s underground (literally), take a legendary literary figure, take an attempt to murder and the investigation that follows…and hand them over to one of the greatest authors alive. Well, if you are lucky, the result will be something like Dodger.

Terry Pratchett’s latest book (he has been VERY prolific of late) takes you out of his favourite fantasy land of the Discworld and instead parks you right in nineteenth century Britain. Or more precisely London. And if you want REAL precision, well, in the seedier parts of that great city (including its sewers) for quite a while. A girl is attacked by two people in London, but is rescued by a boy called Dodger, who literally emerges from the sewers and drives the attackers away. Two passers-by, Charlie and Henry, see this and take the girl away to be treated. Charlie later asks Dodger, who is a tosher (a person who searches the sewers running underneath London for valuables), to find out more about the assailants. And that gets the book rolling.

It would not take a genius to figure out that Charlie here is Charles Dickens, Henry is Henry Mayhew and Dodger himself, well, seems to be the person who inspired one of Dickens’ most memorable characters, the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist.To get back to the story, there are quite a few twists and turns as we follow the amazing Dodger – who is never short of a trick or a witty remark – on the roads of London, as well as below them. A number of historical and literary figures flit in and out of the book – Benjamin Disraeli, Sweeny Todd and Robert Peel, among them – as matters get increasingly complex and political.

And it is all told in a manner that is so typical of Pratchett. Word play is never far from the surface (“The man gave Dodger a cursory glance that had quite a lot of curse in it”), and neither is bitter cynicism. In fact, some of the passages detailing Dodger’s search for saleable material in the sewers are amongst the most darkly humorous ones that Pratchett has ever written. It is dark and depressing, yes, but the manner in which it is narrated will not just make you think, but also smile. Not too many books have that quality, and that alone is reason enough to buy and read Dodger, we think.

That said, those who have experience the Discworld vintage of Pratchett will be a bit disappointed at the absence of the supremely good plotting and flowing text that marked that series. No, we are not saying that Dodger is a bad book. Far from it. When compared with works of lesser mortals (many of whom sell more copies than he does), it is outstanding. It is just that we have been spoilt by Sir Terry. In Dodger, you get a sense of laboured writing at times, especially when the descriptions of the sewers or of London’s less privileged areas come around. Even some of the wit seems forced at such occasions (“And on this dirty night there were appropriately dirty deeds that not even the rain could wash away.”) . You cannot help feeling sometimes that Pratchett is actually trying to do a Dickens here, who similarly laced tragedy with dark humour. Which is not really necessary – he is good enough as he is.

The fact that Dodger STILL remains a very good read tells you what Pratchett is capable of at his best. It is one of the reasons why his readers have, like one of Dickens’ characters, Great Expectations of him. He does not deliver on all fronts in Dodger, but does more than most can.

Our verdict: Read it. To get a taste of Victorian Britain, with its inequities and problems. And its heroes.

Terry Pratchett
368 pp
Rs 799

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