The rain poured down on London so hard that it seemed that the rain was dancing spray, every raindrop contending with its fellow for supremacy in the air and waiting to splash down. It was a deluge. The drains and sewers were overflowing, throwing up—regurgitating, as it were—the debris of muck, slime and filth, the dead dogs, the dead rats, cats and worse; bringing back up to the world of men all those things that they thought they had left behind them; jostling and gurgling and hurrying towards the overflowing and always hospitable River Thames; bursting its banks, bubbling and churning like some nameless soup boiling in a dreadful cauldron; the river itself gasping like a dying fish. But those in the know always said about the London rain that, try as it might, it would never, ever clean that noisome city, because all it did was show you another layer of dirt. And on this dirty night there were appropriately dirty deeds that not even the rain could wash away.If the opening paragraph of Terry Pratchett’s new historical novel Dodger strikes you as very Dickensian, rest assured that this is in no way a coincidence. Set in the same slightly alternate Victorian world as Pratchett’s Nation, Dodger tells the story of a seventeen-year-old orphan who works as a tosher in the London sewers. A tosher is someone who looks for valuable items such as coins, lost jewellery and the like amidst the sewage. You can read more about the profession by clicking over to this excellent post at the Smithsonian blog (via Wordsnerdy) — although Dodger himself would disagree that this was the worst job you could have in Victorian London. If by now you’re thinking this all sounds like something straight out of Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, you would again be absolutely correct.
Dodger lives with Solomon Cohen, an elderly Jewish watchmaker who took him in a few years previously, and he makes his living as he can. His life changes one night when he rescues a young woman who’s being beaten up by a group of men. The rescue brings Dodger to the attention of one Mr Charlie Dickens and his friend Mr Mayhew, who are only too happy to make a hero out of him. But as Dodger soon realises, heroism is a very complicated thing, and furthermore the young woman he rescued has things to say about the people who wish her harm.
Pratchett does a wonderful job of bringing the underbelly of Victorian London to life in this novel. Dodger is full of interesting historical details, and it features appearances by several notorious Victorians. In addition to Charles Dickens and Henry Mayhew, there’s Sweeney Todd, Disraeli, Robert Peel, Ada Lovelace, and Angela Burdett-Coutts. Some have very brief cameos, but others play important roles in the story; I was particularly impressed by the way Pratchett managed to make these appearances seem organic rather than forced. There are also several nods to Dickens’ fiction: I caught some references to Great Expectations, and I bet I’d have picked up on more if not for my appalling Dickens ignorance (I know, I know – I’ve been saying for years that I’m going to do something about that). The more you know about Dickens, the more you’re likely to get out of the intertextuality in Dodger.
The young woman Dodger saves is nicknamed Simplicity by the well-meaning but very Victorian Mayhew and Dickens; yet as the novel progresses, we realise there really isn’t much about her that is simple (at one point she explicitly says, “Two very nice people here in England, gentlemen, not knowing my real name, called me ‘Simplicity’, but I am rather more complicated”.) Dodger could easily have been a traditional damsel in distress type story, and indeed for the first half or so it looked like it might be one. But I was sustained by my implicit trust in Terry Pratchett’s ability and willingness to write women who are actual complicated human beings, and this trust eventually paid off. While Dodger clearly remains the hero of the story, ‘Simplicity’ is given a voice and a say in her own future. Her backstory illuminates gender inequalities in the Victorian age, and she and Dodger end up developing a true partnership. I could perhaps have done without the romance between the two, mostly because I’m perpetually on the lookout for more boy-girl friendships in YA, but I’d take a slowly developed romance like this one over the insta-love of many other novels any day.
The thing that interested me the most in Dodger was its engagement with themes such as ethics and social exclusion. Dodger inhabits a world of petty criminals; a world full of people who were pushed to the very edges of society. These are people who are frequently dehumanised, but Pratchett portrays them with empathy and insight. I was reminded of the world of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith (which is, not coincidentally, also partially Dickens-inspired): both authors are interested in criminality as a response to social conditions and in the relationship between ethics and privilege. The inhabitants of Dodger’s world do follow a moral code, but theirs are not the ethics of the well-off citizens who make the laws – being lawful all the time is something they literally can’t afford. Dodger himself doesn’t do anything illegal, as there’s no law against being a tosher, but we eventually learn that this hasn’t always been his only survival strategy. It’s interesting that it was due to his relationship with Solomon that Dodger stopped stealing: his compliance with the law goes hand in hand with a marked improvement in his living conditions, and the novel makes it clear that this is no accident. If you’re familiar with Terry Pratchett’s City Watch books, you won’t at all be surprised by the political undercurrents in Dodger.
Dodger is told from its protagonist’s point of view, and although the narrative voice doesn’t break free from a Victorian worldview, it does occasionally nod at its limitations. I love that Pratchett managed to do this without becoming heavy-handed, but unfortunately it’s exactly the voice that stopped me from wholeheartedly loving Dodger. I can’t put my finger on what, but there was something about it that kept pulling me out of the story. I’m not sure if this is just one of those inexplicable personal reactions or if there’s something off about the narration that I haven’t been able to articulate.
In any case, it’s work keeping in mind that my enjoying a Terry Pratchett book less than I expected still means I enjoyed it more than a good 80% of everything I read this year. Dodger is smart and unapologetically political, it refuses to talk down to its young target audience, and the sensibility behind it is a reminder of everything I love about Terry Pratchett.
Dodger will be out next week in the UK, and the US edition will be available on the 25th.
Dodger made haste towards the house of the Mayhews while in his mind he saw the cheerful face and hooked nose of Mister Punch, beating his wife, beating the policeman and throwing the baby away, which made all the children laugh. Why was that funny, he thought? Was that funny at all? He’d lived for seventeen years on the streets, and so he knew that, funny or not, it was real. Not all the time, of course, but often when people had been brought down so low that they could think of nothing better to do than punch: punch the wife, punch the child and then, sooner or later, endeavour to punch the hangman, although that was the punch that never landed and, oh how the children laughed at Mister Punch! But Simplicity wasn’t laughing…They read it too: Wordnerdy, Killin’ Time Reading
Dodger hesitated. Life was so much simpler in the sewers, but he had learned something lately, which was that the truth was indeed a fog, just like Charlie said, and people shaped it the way they wanted it to go. He had never killed anybody, ever, but that didn’t matter, because the fog of truth didn’t want to know that poor Mister Todd had been a decent man who saw so many terrible things in the service of the Duke of Wellington that his mind had become as twisted as the corpses of the men they placed in front of him. The poor devil was indeed more a candidate for Bedlam rather than the gallows, though any man with any sense but no money—oh, not those of the poor who did go to Bedlam—would choose the hangman any day. But the mist of truth didn’t like awkward details, and so there had to be a villain, and there had to be a hero.
He looked at Disraeli and caught his eye, and Mister Disraeli winked—a tribute from one dodger to another dodger, perhaps. Dodger let himself smile, but didn’t wink back, because a young man could get into trouble winking at gentlemen, and up until then this place—all these statues, all these soundless carpets, all these pictures on the walls of elderly men with white hair and an expression of acute constipation—had been preying on his nerves, pushing him away, telling him he was small, insignificant, a worm. That wink had broken the spell and told him that this place was just another rookery: bigger, warmer, certainly richer, definitely better fed to judge by the stomachs and the redness of the noses, but after that wink just another street where people jostled for advantage and power and a better life for themselves if not for everybody else.
Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%. I downloaded a review copy of this book via Edelweiss.