Monday, July 25, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: The Dickens Boy by Thomas Keneally

I think I must be the only one in my demographic who has not seen Schindler’s List and I feel kind of guilty about that. The author, Thomas Keneally, has a new book, The Dickens Boy, so with an odd sort of logic, I added that to my TBR list instead.

This is a gem of a historical novel. 

Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens (called Plorn) is the youngest (10th) child of Charles and Catherine

Dickens. He is, or believes himself to be, rather a disappointment to the great man. Not only did he do poorly at school, but also – and this is worse – he has never read any of his father’s books. He knows his father is practically worshiped the world over. He’s used to it. Yet it bewilders him all the same.

At sixteen, he finds himself shipped off to Australia. His older brother Alfred, who also failed to live up to expectations, preceded him there a few years earlier. Plorn is desperate to show his father that he is good for something, that he can apply himself.

Australia is a huge place. And so, while he does cross paths with Alfred, Plorn is not settled in the same region. Rather, he’s sent out to Momba to work for sheep farmers (massively large scale sheep farmers), the Bonney brothers. There, Plorn not only applies himself but thrives.

The Dickens Boy is a coming-of-age story, set in the 1860s Australian Outback. It showcases the hard, isolated lives of the men who settle there, the offenses of British colonialism, and the workings on the psyche of being the son of a man universally revered. Even in the Outback, Plorn cannot escape his father’s shadow. While the Dickens name brings perks, it also causes Plorn a great deal of anxiety. He has none of his father’s talent. Yet he is about to discover he has talents of his own.

As part of the growing up process, Plorn begins his own tentative exploration of male-female relations. He does this largely through reading and imagination since there are very few “acceptable” women in the Outback. But the process allows him to question his father’s abandonment of his mother and relationship with a young Irish actress. The great man was, perhaps, not so great after all.

The novel is superbly crafted. Details of daily life are riveting. The characters are fully realized. Plorn’s growth from a naive, insecure youth to a competent young man of increasing confidence is poignant and insightful. The novel is also shot through with clever humor. 

The book not only tells the story of this fascinating young man in a complex setting, but also provides insights into the life of Charles Dickens. Highly recommended.

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