Thomas Keneally is a prolific well known Australian author. In fact many of you not from Australia will be familiar with his work as he was the Man Booker prize winner in 1982 for his non fiction work Schindlers Ark, later republished as Schindler’s List and on which the film of the same name is based. He has subsequently been shortlisted for the Man Booker on three other occasions for The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, Gossip from the Forest and Confederates, as well as many other awards. Many of his books take a bit of history and weave it into a well developed piece of fiction. It was with interest then that I sat down to read The Dickens Boy.
It was history that I had never heard of previously but on a little research found it to be true. Plorn ( Edward Bulwer-Lytton) the youngest son of Charles Dickens (of Great Expectations and others fame) was sent to Australia to be made into a man when he was still a teenager (16). One of his older brothers, Alfred D’Orsay Tennyson Dickens, had been sent previous to Plorn. It was supposedly so that their inability to apply themselves would not reflect badly on their father and showed that Dickens, who sent some of his characters to Australia, believed in the power of Australia to strengthen character.
Plorn arrived in Melbourne in 1868 and was sent to a sheep station at which he did not last long – he got into an argument over dinner and left immediately. Another property near Wilcannia in N.S.W. was found for him and here he grew up. He arrived with what for him was a terrible burden – he hadn’t read a word of his father’s work and to his dismay, he found Charles Dickens was as famous in the remote bush of Australia as he had been in England. This thread held the book together as he played countless cricket matches and came across bushrangers, other criminals, those escaping the world in an environment where the men were tough and the women almost non existent. It shows well the difference in the class system of England and that of Australia.
I found it interesting the differences between the brothers and how they saw the life they had left. It looked at Charles Dickens and the possibility that he was street angel home devil. I loved the descriptions of country (an area of Australia that most would consider inhospitable and wonder that any life could survive let alone sheep) and the life Plorn found himself in – so different from the life he had left. I did however struggle to get through the first half. It was setting the scene but it could have been set just a little quicker. The second half I found had more interest. I enjoyed the characters. Written in the first person narrated by Plorn it was spoken in the vernacular of the time which suited the style of narration.
Would I recommend this coming of age novel – Yes I would but be prepared to be captivated by the characters and country whilst feeling, initially at least, that nothing much happens in the bush. Probably well captured reality.