Terry Pratchett, Dodger (2012)
Terry Pratchett visits Victorian London for his latest book. Dodger, a young sewer scavenger, sees a girl escaping from a coach and saves her from being beaten by the two men she was travelling with. This incident is witnessed by Charles Dickens, ‘Charlie’, who becomes a friend to Dodger, and social reformer Henry Mayhew, who shelters Simplicity, as the girl comes to be known. Several events increase Dodger’s notoriety, including his exposing the truth about Sweeney Todd, and he finds himself moving in loftier circles. He also discovers that there are people after Simplicity and an ingenious plan is needed to thwart them – an ideal job for someone like Dodger…
Pratchett brings the atmosphere of his London to life, conveying not just the difficulties faced by his characters through poverty, but also the ways they might survive (or not – his portrayal of Sweeney Todd as a damaged individual is especially vivid). The plot of Dodger doesn’t quite succeed: the antagonists remain too shadowy to have a full dramatic impact. But running through the novel are themes of pragmatism and appearances being deceptive, and here Dodger shines. Charlie understands that Dodger may be able to investigate events in ways which are valuable but not open to others. Dodger himself sees the manoeuvres of politics as not being much different from those of the street. And deceptive appearances are the foundation of the plan to save Simplicity, which gives Pratchett’s novel its fine finale.
(This review also appears at We Love This Book.)
Evan Mandery, Q: A Love Story (2011)
An (unnamed) New York academic and writer meets one Quentina Elizabeth Deveril (also known as Q), and promptly falls in love. The pair of them start dating, and find they’re just right for each other. Wedding bells look set to chime… until our man receives a note from himself, asking him to meet for a meal. He goes there, to find his sixty-year-old self, who has apparently travelled back in time to warn the younger him against marrying Q. The two of them, his future self says, will have a son who dies young from an inherited illness, and that will destroy Q. The protagonist decides to call the wedding off, and moves on with his life – but different future selves keep coming back in time to dispense their advice.
Q is Evan Mandery’s third novel; perhaps the first thing one notices is that it’s written in a rather mannered way that pushes it to one side of reality. This technique leads to some fine comic moments, such as the narrator’s and Q’s date on a bizarre miniature golf course, or the time they go on a protest march against a construction project, dressed in vegetable costumes. It also gives the protagonist’s exchanges with his older selves an effectively deadpan tone. But the same style sometimes leaves events without a full emotional grounding – sometimes Q reads too much like a joke.
The narrative thread of Q is full of digressions on subjects ranging from Sigmund Freud’s study of eels to The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; these illustrate the book’s theme of what-ifs and alternatives. As time goes on, our narrator has cause to reflect on what’s important, in life and history; Mandery shows how the most important things are not always what we think they are at the time. The main plot runs like a whirlpool, as the visitations from time travellers become more and more frequent, and the novel heads ever closer to absurdity – until the ending, which is pitched just right, and is really quite affecting.
Any Cop?: Mandery’s style walks the line between annoying and charming, and doesn’t always stay on the right side. But, once you get into the swing of Q, it works. It’s worth a look.
(This review also appears at Bookmunch.)