Reviewed by Mohsin Siddiqui
Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, which established him as one of the funniest and most on-point satirists writing today, has always been light-hearted, albeit with dark undertones. In the more recent ones, these undertones have steadily become darker. Pratchett has covered war, enslavement, demonic possession, and — most worrying of all — the meaning of being human. Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s some years ago, Pratchett can’t be faulted for having taken a turn towards the negative. In his latest novel Dodger, however, Pratchett has again taken an upbeat tone.
The eponymous Dodger is a tough-on-the-outside-soft-on-the-inside, 17-year-old orphan who knows the seedy underbelly of London inside-out. More importantly, he knows the importance of keeping to himself and staying uninvolved. However, when he sees two men attacking a young woman, he can’t help but get involved. Rescuing the young lady is apparently not enough for him though: having handed her over to passersby Henry Mayhew and “Mister Charlie” Dickens, he takes it upon himself to find out who the attackers were, in the process getting involved with political affairs far above his head but not beyond his grasp.
A tosher by trade, Dodger spends his days searching for items such as dropped currency and lost jewellery amongst the plentiful sewage of Victorian London, and his nights under the roof of Solomon Cohen, an elderly Jewish watchmaker who took in the young vagrant some years ago, and acts as a surrogate father-figure towards him. In addition to Dodger and Cohen, who are characters fully capable of carrying a novel on their own, Pratchett also liberally populates his world with cameos — some fleeting, and others extended — by characters such as Benjamin Disraeli, Ada Lovelace, and of course, the grand old master of Victorian fiction, Charles Dickens. For fans of Great Expectations and Bleak House, there are multiple intertextual in-jokes and references to Dickensian London, all of them organically woven into the narrative.
Dodger is told exclusively as a narrative by its protagonist, which means that the worldview you might expect from Pratchett is somewhat restricted to Victoriana. That said, it remains smartly, unapologetically aware; politically, socially, and economically. The target audience is clearly young adults, but Pratchett manages a sensibility that avoids condescension in any way. He refuses to elide or conceal the stark misery of life in Victorian England, but he does not harp on it to excess either; there is no sense that he is doing anything other than documenting reality. This is underpinned by the evident inspiration that Pratchett found in historical fact and fiction, but Dodger manages to avoid losing its own internal voice in the reams of “actual” detail.
There is, for example, a clear linkage between Pratchett’s Dodger and Dickens’ Artful Dodger; however, as the story progresses the links in these chains gradually separate, until by the end what we see is a story that could exist in any time or space, from present-day New York to the Discworld’s Ankh-Morpork. Beyond political or historical commentary though, Dodger is also a rather sweet — but not cloying — love story: Simplicity, the young lady rescued by Dodger, is also the trigger for a “coming-of-age” story, as Dodger finds himself falling for her. In grand old mythic quest tradition, the couple-to-be are pursued by assassins and thugs funded by one of the great imperial houses of Europe, and it is up to Dodger to not only find an escape for the two of them, but also to navigate the equally dangerous confluence of high society and diplomatic circles to which he is introduced by Dickens.
Dodger manages to be playful at the same time as it is serious: we meet Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber — who in addition to being fiction, hadn’t even been written at the time — on the heels of our meeting with Henry Mayhew, author of London Labour and the London Poor (a book Pratchett cites as a major inspiration). There are delicious winks and nods: when Dodger worries out loud that Simplicity may be shut up in a “bleak house”, we can almost see and hear journalist Dickens frantically reaching for a pencil and scratching plot outlines on the back of an envelope. One of my favourite moments was the introduction to Solomon’s dog (an introduction that will have people wondering how in the world an editor let the dog’s name get through).
There are very few authors who could get away with this sort of thing, and Solomon’s dog isn’t even the first of it. Pratchett delights in wordplay and is not shy about showing it off: Dodger, we are wryly told, contemplates being a “successful urchin” by “studying how to urch”, or when visiting a doctor, receives “a cursory glance which had quite a lot of curse in it”. Dickens, upon witnessing the cool — and complete — competence demonstrated by the young Dodger, expresses his “great expectations,” and after a moment of reflection, notes that phrase for later consideration (there should be a prize of some sort, or at least a scorecard for readers to track the revelation of each allusive moment).
The really redemptive factor behind all of this, though, is fairly different from the darker tone that Pratchett fans may have seen in his more recent works. Rather than individuals having to overcome their own darker side, or grand rebellion against the forces of evil, Dodger is a story of ethics and of unexpected heroism. Dodger has grown up in an environment where betrayal and competition are as natural as oxygen, but the innate goodness in him consistently wins out.
A “knight in soaking armour”, as Pratchett describes him via Dickens, Dodger is generous, courageous and possessed of an almost aggressive loyalty that seems to be utterly absent from his milieu. This could easily have turned him into boring character. Thankfully, the goodness exists hand-in-hand with a stubborn practicality, as Dodger takes every opportunity possible to “accidentally” pick up things that may have “fallen to the ground” and “liberate” items belonging to the upper-classes amongst whom he inadvertently begins to circulate. When asked by an interviewer if it was his illness that turned Pratchett’s recent writing towards a gloomier outlook, the author responded with an easy denial. It was not illness, he said; it was just age and experience that had influenced him. But the reality is that Pratchett has always had — under the veneer of cynicism that has slowly thickened — a remarkably resilient heart. In Dodger he gives us a rare glimpse of that most vital organ. There is no shortage of wit or acuity in this story, but there is a welcome surplus of soul and warmth.
By Terry Pratchett