Tuesday, 1 January 2013

"Tom-All-Alone's," by Lynn Shepherd

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I'm sorry that it has been so long since I have written on my blog, and maybe my resolution for the New Year should be to try harder.  I've had another of my blogging slumps and crises of writing confidence, which seem to have become regrettably frequent.  However, "Tom-All-Alone's" is a great book and it would do it a disservice not to put aside my blogging malaise for long enough to write about it.

A few weeks back I commented on Twitter that I was attempting to read "Mansfield Park" (which I got distracted from and haven't picked up again, so I think I need to give it a break and restart it sometime).  I then had an interesting Twitter exchange with Lynn Shepherd - author of "Murder at Mansfield Park" - about Jane Austen's novel.  As a result of this discussion, Lynn Shepherd's novel "Tom-All-Alone's," which I was lucky enough to get a review copy of from Waterstones, skipped to the top of my review pile.

Lynn Shepherd's novel has been inspired by Dickens' "Bleak House," and some of Dickens' characters elbow their way into "Tom-All-Alone's."  Anyone who read my feelings on "Oliver Twist" will know that I have a troubled relationship with Dickens, but I remember having to read "Bleak House" as a part of my degree and enjoying it (despite reading it while laid up after an ankle operation in the summer break).  Lynn Shepherd's hero is Charles Maddox who, after being dismissed from the Metropolitan Police, is trying to forge a reputation as a private detective.  The opening of the novel finds him visiting the titular Tom-All-Alone's - a gruesome graveyard that is memorably described in language which calls on the reader's senses in all the wrong ways - as part of an investigation.  He subsequently takes on another case for Tulkinghorn (yes, the one from "Bleak House") to find the person who has been writing anonymous threatening letters to a powerful client.

The mystery into which Charles Maddox is drawn is an engrossing one, but I found myself becoming even more engaged by the characters than by the mystery itself.  In the course of the novel, Charles Maddox comes to live with a much loved and admired uncle (also Charles Maddox), who was a thief-taker himself, but whose mental capacities have been waning with old age into alzheimers.  I'm lucky enough not to have had personal experience of watching the mental decline of someone I love - and I profoundly hope that I never have to - but from my position of blessed ignorance this aspect of the novel was particularly moving and well-written. The moments in which Maddox the elder is lucid and is fearfully aware that he is losing himself are painful and haunting. In addition to this relationship dynamic, there is also a romantic interlude for Charles Maddox junior which is touchingly sweet and tentative.

I did, however, find that I had a sometimes uneasy relationship with the style of the novel.  There are - admittedly not frequent - instances where the narrative steps outside the Victorian time-frame to acknowledge that this is a modern take on a period setting ("Even now, more than a century later...").  I initially found these interjections jarring, as they would pull me up short and take me out of the story.  This comes down to my own personal preference - I take a stance against Brechtian alienation muddling - as, although I can understand the dramatic function that it serves, I prefer my fiction or drama to draw me in (yes, even into a grim graveyard) rather than remind me that I am on the outside looking in.

Yet, with Lynn Shepherd's novel, something curious happened.  As I approached the end game of the novel and my credulity was tested - this is not a criticism of the novel, merely a symptom of the difficulty that I have with the convolutions and coincidences of the Victorian melodramatic turn of plot (I refer you again to my feelings on "Oliver Twist") - these reminders of time slippage had a personal pay-off for me.  I found myself more forgiving of these elements, because I had been reminded that I am a modern reader outside that frame of reference.  That which had previously alienated me actually ended up increasing my enjoyment because it reminded me to suspend my twenty-first century preconceptions.

I know that some review readers like to see a star system of ratings, but I personally don't like to simplify my feelings on a book in that way.  However, now that I am evaluating my own limited shelf-space, I see things more and more as whether a book is disposable - to be taken to a charity shop or put on the bookswap shelf at work after one read - or whether I liked it so much that I want to keep it for a future re-read.  So, at the end of each review, if it is a book that I own, I'll say whether I plan to keep it or not.  If a book is worth keeping, then it would probably equate to at least a three on a star rating system and more likely a four star or even above (though I am quite strict with my stars, and a 5 star review is almost as rare as a griffin).

And "Tom-All-Alone's" is definitely a keeper.

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