Friday, 27 September 2013

Dodger by Terry Pratchett, reviewed by Jacob Edwards

Dodger by Terry Pratchett (Doubleday, hb/pb, 347pp). Tuppence more and up goes the donkey.

Dodger is a tosher – a youngster who scavenges for lost valuables in the sewers of Victorian London. Toshers generally live short and sordid lives (a tosher who makes it to his thirties is considered most venerable indeed), but Dodger is not just a tosher. He is also a geezer – somebody cunning and street-smart, a paragon of underclass wiles; someone who knows everyone and is known to all. And besides this, Dodger is more than handy with a pair of brass knuckles. When he rescues a young lady one particularly noisome evening, he finds himself thrust suddenly into the role of upstanding citizen. Determined both to protect the girl and bang to rights her erstwhile tormentors, Dodger must bring his artful talents to bear upon the upper stratums of society. And all the while keeping his new suit clean.

Dodger is marketed as a young adult novel, which unusually for Terry Pratchett does not take place within the realms of his much-beloved Discworld series. The distinction, however, is quite arbitrary. The only young adult feature of Dodger is its protagonist (in truth Pratchett shows fewer inhibitions than usual in touching upon mature audience content), while London itself presents with such squalor and debasement that it could easily pass for a borough of Ankh-Morpork – at least in the early Discworld novels, before that city started to benefit from what has proven to be an ongoing societal renaissance.

One of Dodger’s most notable features, and perhaps its greatest strength, is that Terry Pratchett in no way romanticises the cobblestoned London we so often find associated with gentlemanly mores and stately carriages being pulled clippity-clop through the mist. Rather, he takes aim at the city’s underbelly and displays almost porcine delight in wallowing in its filth, smog and human detritus. The writing as ever carries a light tone, but with Dodger Pratchett has taken considerable pains to keep his subject matter down to earth… and not infrequently in the sewers below. The exception is Dodger himself, whose precocious sangfroid must surely be at odds with the reality of his station. But such is the magic of storytelling. The fantastical element, though small, is what distinguishes Dodger from historical fiction, or for that matter from the insidious proselytising of Dodger’s new acquaintance – journalist and soon-to-be novelist Mr Charles Dickens.

In assembling the dramatis personae for Dodger, Terry Pratchett has quite cleverly mixed historical notables (Dickens, Disraeli, Peel, et cetera) with fictional archetypes (Dodger, Solomon, Sweeney Todd), the conceit being that Dodger and company must have been real people upon whom Dickens then drew in writing his novels – particularly Oliver Twist. This pseudo historicity adds a certain intrigue to Dodger. In fact, it may well spur some readers to further investigate the period thus dramatised. Equally, though, it seems to have placed something of a constraint upon the plot. Whereas devotees of the Discworld novels (including its purportedly young adult Tiffany Aching books) have come to expect from Pratchett a certain convolutedness of narrative – an atmospheric pea-souper in written form – Dodger’s storyline is not so intricate, and plays less to the reader’s sense of unfolding mystery. This is a failing, perhaps, but only in relative terms; and by way of trade-off there manifests a gloriously heightened sense of characterisation, not so much in Dodger himself but rather in the steaming, pungent London it is his misfortune to inhabit.

Dodger offers up something slightly different from Terry Pratchett: lighter than his coming-of-age classic Nation (2008); more darkly shaded than his Discworld novels; Dodger is a book both witty and sincere – as tellingly sharp as Sweeney Todd’s razor.

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