Hurray for Terry Pratchett by Elizabeth Hawksley
I’ve just read Terry Pratchett’s new children’s book Dodger, a terrific take on popular Victorian tales of low life but with a 21st century twist. Modern children enjoy reading about a far grittier reality than was offered to young 19th century readers. We are in London in the 1840s. Seventeen-year-old Dodger is a ‘tosher’, scavenging in London’s old Roman sewers for a living. It is dark, dangerous and smelly work but Dodger is nimble, quick-witted and knows exactly how to work the system. The law has never yet laid a finger on him and he intends to keep it that way.
But when Dodger rescues a mysterious young lady from a murderous attack, things start to get difficult. The new Metropolitan Police gets involved; Charles Dickens of the Morning Chronicle scents a story and a dangerous foreign assassin comes to London. Dodger will have his work cut out to keep the lady safe, discover who she is and why the Foreign Office is taking an interest – and stay alive.
I loved this book. Pratchett writes brilliantly. It’s a tale full of surprises: there are nods to various Dickens novels (Dodger himself surely has an ‘Artful’ cousin), Mayhew’s London Life, Bazalgette’s dream of a new sewerage system, the astute millionaire Miss Burdett-Coutts, Benjamin Disraeli, shopping in Savile row, the notorious (if fictional) Sweeney Todd, and scores of other contemporary references. There is a philosophical element, too, which gives the book added depth, as Dodger works out what sort of man he wants to become. I have an MA in Victorian Studies and all this, together with the lively Victorian low-life slang, hugely increased my enjoyment.
The story is a cracker. I was hooked, frantically turning over the pages to see what was going to happen next, every now and then shrieking with laughter. It’s glorious mixture of inventiveness, fun and slightly massaged history. It illuminates London’s Victorian underworld brilliantly. Dickens would have loved it.