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Sounded fascinating but could have been so much better
on 14 March 2010
This journey through the cemeteries, opium dens and underground sewers of Victorian London is a good atmospheric read, but doesn't quite live up to its fascinating premise. However, it will almost certainly leave you wanting to learn more about Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and their works, which can only be a good thing.
Drood begins with the Staplehurst Rail Disaster of 1865, when the train on which Charles Dickens is travelling crashes. As Dickens helps to rescue people from the wreckage, he encounters a mysterious figure dressed in a black cape who introduces himself only as 'Drood'. In the days following the train crash, Dickens becomes obsessed with discovering Drood's true identity. With the reluctant help of his friend and fellow author, Wilkie Collins, Dickens begins a search for Drood which leads them through the dark alleys and underground catacombs of London.
Interspersed with the Drood storyline are long passages in which we learn about the family life of both Dickens and Collins, how much they earned for their various novels, the details of Wilkie's laudanum addiction, Dickens' interest in mesmerism and every other piece of biographical information you could wish to know. Some readers might find this boring, but I enjoyed these sections - I thought the descriptions of Dickens' reading tours were particularly interesting. Another thing I liked about the book was the way Simmons deliberately tries to confuse and mislead the reader - at several points in the novel we are made to wonder whether something we've just read is real or an illusion.
The book is told in the form of a memoir written by Wilkie Collins and addressed to an unknown reader in the future. Simmons has attempted to imitate Collins' narrative style but I felt that he didn't get it quite right. He uses a lot of words and phrases that just sound either too modern or too American to me. Collins is one of my favourite writers, but in Drood he is portrayed as a mediocre author who is consumed with jealousy of the more successful Dickens and becomes increasingly bitter and unlikeable as the book goes on. I've read a lot of Wilkie Collins books and loved every one of them - I think he was a much better writer than this book suggests.
Overall, Drood could have been a fantastic book but left me feeling slightly disappointed.