As I dunked the teabag into the teacup, I could feel the whole universe jiggling around me. Something was wrong.
With every dip, this feeling became more and more intense. I could hear a high-pitched humming in the air. Hesitantly, with a shaking hand, I added the second teaspoon of sugar, and my hair began to stand on end. The air in the kitchen crackled with a strange electricity as I stirred…
I thought I had this whole time travel business pretty much under control. I really did. But it turns out my tea-powered time machine has a mind of its own
This Monday, I was all prepared for my twelfth trip back in time, to the year 1911. But as I…you know, did the particular thing I had to do in order to travel back in time, I began to realise that something wasn’t quite right. Something was different this time…
Standing at the kitchen bench with the teaspoon in my hand and my hair in a static tangle, I looked around me and noticed my entire kitchen was rattling. The humming noise was quickly becoming a scream. I winced at the sound. What was happening? What had I done wrong?
Everything began to slow down, as I realised it was already far too late to stop the time-travelling process. The milk blended into the tea, and I watched, helpless to react, as a plate on the kitchen bench juddered silently forward and tumbled to the floor, where it split slowly into little white pieces. The whole kitchen, possibly the whole house, was shaking, and I couldn’t hear a thing over the roar. My hand reached out, took the handle of my teacup – and the process was complete.
As the noise reached a deafening crescendo, I felt the sickening lurch I always feel whenever I move backwards or forwards in time. But this time, the sensation was more overwhelming and unbearable than ever before. With my kitchen disappearing around me, replaced by the indescribable blur of time moving backwards around me, I felt a wave of panic. I was lurching backwards in time, with no idea where I’d end up.
In my mind, I was trying to scream, but my body was paralysed, unable to respond.
Then – it was over. I was lying face-down in something green and stingy. Grass. I somehow found the energy to lift my head, and saw a very confused cow staring back at me with big, black teary eyes. I imagine it had never seen a strangely-dressed, frizzy-haired human holding a half-empty teacup in one hand materialise in the middle of her field.
Everything ached. Even my eyelashes.
I did a mental check to see if I still had all my limbs. It turned out that I did. And one of them was resting in a cow pat.
After an embarrassingly long time spent face-down in the grass, groaning, I got up and slowly (very slowly) walked towards the horizon, searching for a library. And, if possible, a nice, hot bath.
To cut a very long story short, upon arriving at the nearest town, I quickly realised that I was definitely not in 1911. Caked in grass and tea and cow poo, I hid in a bush and watched people moving around. Everything about them was wrong. The clothes they were wearing, the way they greeted each other…
If only I’d actually listened in history class…
After many hours of careful observation (and stumbling across a discarded newspaper) I managed to work out the date.
I found my way to a huge library where I could hide myself away for the week and read. By a staggering coincidence, I’d managed to arrive in the very same year one of literature’s most recognisable titles was first published!
It was the year 1838. Here’s my review –
by Charles Dickens
Published in 1838
Okay. I could write this review the hard way. Or I could write this review the easy way. So, what’s it going to be…punk?
The easy way? Oh, goody.
Charles Dickens’ classic Oliver Twist is one seriously freaking complicated book. It’s long, it’s complex, and it contains about a million twists and turns. There’s a whole cast of characters you need to keep up with. You’d better be on your toes if you’re going to tackle this book…
No, I’ve never read Oliver Twist. Or anything else by Charles Dickens, in fact. All I know about Oliver Twist comes from having seen the movie version of the musical, Oliver!
(hangs head in shame)
If you’re expecting jaunty musical numbers and rascally (but lovable!) young criminals in Oliver Twist, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. Yes, this book will make you smile. It’ll make you laugh. But it’s also going to make you cry. It made me cry. Twice. It’s also going to give you a severe case of the screaming heebie jeebies. Just so you know…
Normally, in my reviews, I give a quick summary of the plot. But, as I’ve already mentioned, Oliver Twist is huge and complicated. If you’ve seen Oliver!, you’ll have some idea of how the story plays out – but that’s only half of what really happens. Here’s a very basic rundown…
Oliver Twist is born into poverty, spending the early years of his childhood in a workhouse, largely unnoticed…until one day, when starving, he finds the courage to ask for more food. He’s put on sale for five pounds. After being apprenticed to an undertaker, Oliver runs away to London, where he is taken in, tired and hungry, by a young man known as the Artful Dodger. Fagin, the leader of a pack of young thieves takes Oliver under his wing, hoping to recruit him as a thief. But young, innocent Oliver doesn’t even realise that his new companions are pickpockets, and on his very first expedition with the Artful Dodger, is taken captive by the police.
After being beaten around a bit, Oliver faints in the courtroom, and the victim of the theft is moved to drop the charges. Taking pity on Oliver, he takes the boy to his home to recover. Mr. Brownlow and Oliver live like father and son…until Nancy, another of Fagin’s protégées, appears and recaptures Oliver against his will.
Then, there’s the fearsome Bill Sikes, Fagin’s superior. He decides to use Oliver to break into a home, lowering him in through an open window – but Oliver, ever determined to do the right thing, tries to let the owners of the home know that they’re being robbed – and is shot.
The owners of the home, Mrs. Maylie and her young (adopted) daughter, Rose, take pity on Oliver. He lies in bed, expected to die – but recovers and tells the Maylies his incredible life story.
As Oliver slowly recovers from his illness, another shady character enters the fray: Monks. Who is he, and why is he determined to tarnish Oliver’s name? In the meantime, Nancy begins to regrety the part she played in Oliver’s recapture, and is determined to set things straight…
From here on in, the plot gets more and more confusing. Rest assured, there is a happy ending in store for Oliver, but there’s also a tragedy looming – a tragedy that might well break your heart.
There are so many things that surprised me about Oliver Twist. First and foremost, I was shocked at how little a part Oliver himself actually plays in the story. In a story named for Oliver, really, when it comes down to it, Oliver doesn’t often get to say much at all. It’s a little like an Arnold Schwartzenegger movie: even though Arnie has his name in big letters on the poster, he’s lucky to actually utter ten words in total.
Most of Oliver’s speech is related to the reader indirectly, such as here, when he’s explaining the story of his life to the Maylies…
“The conference was a long one, for Oliver told them all his simple history, and was often compelled to stop by pain and want of strength. It was a solemn thing to hear, in the darkened room, the feeble voice of the sick child recounting a weary catalogue of evils and calamities which hard men had brought upon him….”
– Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, page 241
A lot of the action in Oliver Twist happens when Oliver himself isn’t actually around. He spends a lot of the story in a state of ignorance and even (quite literal) unconsciousness. During his initial stay with Fagin’s gang, he honestly believes that the gang’s chief activity is making handkerchiefs, rather than stealing them.
It’s Oliver’s sheer innocence, in spite of his upbringing that continually endears him to other characters in the book – and to the reader as well. He’s honest, passionate and determined. You can’t help but like him.
Another thing that surprised me about Oliver Twist? It’s an excessively morbid book. I had the faint idea that Oliver Twist was a children’s book. It’s definitely not. Around every corner, between every page, looms the spectre of death. The book opens with a death; that of Oliver’s mother. Several characters at the beginning of the book predict that Oliver will be hung. Oliver is eventually apprenticed to an undertaker, where he sleeps in a coffin. Creepy? Definitely.
Oliver spends a great deal of the book unconscious. He’s nursed back from the brink of death…twice. In Oliver Twist‘s London, death is all around, especially for the poor. However, not even the rich are exempt: Rose Maylie also falls victim to a sudden fever, from which she miraculously recovers.
Then, there’s poor Nancy. Reading Oliver Twist knowing her eventual fate colours the story an even deeper shade of black. For instance, the following passage, which I wouldn’t recommend reading late at night while you’re home alone (as I did):
“‘I told you before,’ replied Nancy, ‘that I was afraid to speak to you there. I don’t know why it is,’ said the girl, shuddering, ‘but I have such a fear and dread upon me to-night that I can hardly stand.’
‘A fear of what?’ asked the gentleman, who seemed to pity her.
‘I scarcely know of what,’ replied the girl. ‘I wish I did. Horrible thoughts of death, and shrouds with blood upon them, and a fear that has made me burn as if I were on fire, have been on me all day. I was reading a book to-night to wile the time away, and the same things came into the print.’
‘Imagination,’ said the gentleman, soothing her.
‘No imagination,’ replied the girl in a hoarse voice. ‘I’ll swear I saw “coffin” written in every page of the book in large black letters, – ay, and they carried one close to me in the streets to-night.’
‘There is nothing unusual in that,’ said the gentleman. ‘They have passed me often.’
‘Real ones’ rejoined the girl. ‘This was not.'”
– Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, pages 384 and 385
That particular passage – and the following chapter, in which Nancy meets her fate – totally creeped me out. I slept with the light on that night…
Although Dickens definitely has a talent for the dark and frightening, he also has a gift for comedy. Because Oliver Twist has such a huge cast of characters for the reader to remember, he makes it easy for us by providing several of his characters with traits that make them memorable. Some have speech impediments, phrases they repeat, aspects of their appearance, and so on. It’s a clever way of reminding us who’s who.
There are only a few things about Oliver Twist that really got my goat. Firstly, there’s the way the plot is so reliant on bizarre coincidences. And it’s not just one coincidence – there’s a whole string of unlikely events that bring the novel to its conclusion. I was swept away by the story while I was reading it, but, thinking about the book afterward, it does seem a little bit contrived.
And then, finally, there’s a particular habit Dickens falls into that really annoys me. Occasionally, at the beginning of his chapters, Dickens tends to ramble. He throws in whopping, overcomplicated sentences about…well, not a lot, really. Then, after a bit of showing off, he gets back to the action, which he describes in clear, concise language. There were a couple of times I was tempted to skip a few paragraphs, just so I could get back to the story.
Because that’s the thing about Oliver Twist: it’s so readable. You want to keep reading, to find out what’s going to happen next. Dickens has a way of stringing the reader along, leading them from one scene to the next. When something – like an impenetrable block of long, convoluted sentences – gets in the way, it’s seriously frustrating. It got in the way of a story I was enjoying immensely.
Charles Dickens really is a master storyteller. At the end of the book, I was left feeling much like Oliver: with a craving for moooooore.
Official Book to the Future Rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
Should I read it?
Yes. Look, I know it’s a bit of a slog at times, but it’s definitely worthwhile. It’s probably going to take you a while to get through, but just keep going. Eventually, the story will hook you and drag you along.
In a word: