Definitely my book of the year so far. I’m a Keneally fan (since Schindler’s Ark all those years ago) and a Dickens fan with a keen interest in Victorians and colonial history and here’s The Dickens Boy with all that wrapped up in a gloriously written novel. Keneally is a master storyteller with characters I can really care about and a honesty that makes me believe that everything here could be true (and quite a lot of it seems to be). Just goes to show you don’t need clever literary devices or pretentious language to write a captivating book, you just need to tell a bloody good story.
The hero of the book is Plorn, Dickens’ tenth child, who is encouraged to go to Australia to make something of himself. He had an affectionate relationship with his dad, the guvnor, and remembers a wonderful childhood in the Dickens family with stories and plays and entertainments. Plornishmaroontigoonter, his dad calls him (Dickens being a man for names), much more fun than Edward. It’s his brother Alfred, also despatched to Australia, who introduces some doubt to the idolatry of their father: there is their discarded mother for a start, the long-term affair with an actress, and the fact that all the unwanted characters in his books are transported to Australia. As are his two sons.
‘So who does he send to Australia?’ Alfred continued. ‘He sends the Peggottys, whose simple goodness is pretty close to stupidity, and their fallen neice Em’ly — another tart to be saved by Australia. And he sends the hopeless Mr Micawber … The criminals — the Artful Dodger to start, and that pageboy in David Copperfield — and the reformed prostitutes and the stupid.’
Plorn, however, doesn’t know about the book characters, because the fact is, he hasn’t read Dickens. He’s given it a go, but just can’t get his head around the writing. (Perhaps he was dyslexic?) This is an excruciating embarrassment for him, perhaps more so in Australia where people treat him like a Dickens ambassador and even the cowboys way out on the ranch have well-thumbed copies of his dad’s books and want to discuss plot points. The poor boy (he’s only sixteen) thinks he must be thick. He is consumed by this low self-esteem and throws himself to station work in the outback, thinking if only he can apply himself to something, he will win his father’s respect.
The thing is, he’s a lovely kid. He’s thoughtful and intelligent in ways other than literary. He seems to have good EQ, is a gentle soul and wins the love and trust of the wide variety of characters he meets in colonial Australia. He’s probably smarter than the average teenager, but there are high expectations for a son of Dickens and Plorn doesn’t meet them.
There are interesting side-stories all through this book but we don’t go chasing them, we’re in a young man’s head and this is a character story not a history lesson. We see what Plorn sees and feel what he feels.
I snuck off to bed early with this book, read it slowly and felt I’d made a new friend.