Sunday, 27 January 2013

Tom-All-Alone's by Lynn Shepherd

This week I finished Tom-All-Alone’s! It took me nearly 2 weeks to read the first half (I spent too much time singing Les Mis*) and then read the second half in 24 hours. It’s really really good and you should read it.

The main thing I’ve learned from this book-a-week challenge is that I can’t write book reviews.  I want to go, READ IT BECAUSE I THINK IT’S GOOD! Or just give away massive spoilers. Perhaps this is a sign that I need to join a book club and just discuss books everyone has read?

Tom-All-Alone's is a detective story that takes place between Bleak House by Charles Dickens and The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, with inspiration from Henry Mayhew and a bit of Jack the Ripper thrown in. I can see a lot of purists getting their knickers in a twist about the whole thing but really it's like like jazz or some kind of literary mash up.  This is Shepherd on how the novel is situated within these works:

Tom-All-Alone’s really came to life for me when I realised that the time-scheme of Bleak House could be made to run parallel with Collin’s very precise chronology for The Woman in White...This allowed me to create a ‘space between’ these two great novels, where I could locate a new and independent story of my own, and explore some of the same nineteenth-century themes of secrecy, madness, power, and abuse, though with the benefit of twenty-first-century hindsight. 

The independent story that shepherd has created between her re-imagined Bleak House and The Woman In White, is the story of private detective and ex-police officer, Charles Maddox. Maddox has a legendary detective as an uncle (He features in Lynn Shepherd’s re-writing of Mansfield Park – Murder at Mansfield Park) and the story begins when he is employed by the lawyer Edward Tulkinghorn  on behalf of some clients. Some characters from Bleak House are simply transplanted – Tulkinghorn, Inspector Bucket and Jo the crossing-sweeper – whereas others are renamed and altered – Esther becomes Hester; Ada, Clara; Mr Jarndyce, Mr Jarvis.

At first I wondered why Lynn Shepherd didn’t just take characters like Tulkinghorn and Bucket and explore the other things they get up to, the things that we aren’t shown by Dickens, and uses them as an interesting way into the Victorian underworld. In some ways this is what she does, at first Charles Maddox’s work seems to be very separate from Bleak House and the Woman in White, and we hear about some very dark things that would never appear in a book like bleak house. But Hester’s Narrative, where there is no Jarndyce versus Jarndyce and the house in which they live is not called Bleak House, but Solitary House, is inserted every few chapters giving us tiny clues.  Having finished the book I am glad that she chose to rename the characters, I’m glad that they are altered, because it hasn’t permanently changed them for me. The end of the novel, where The Woman in White part really kicks in, feels like one of those horrible theories – like the one that Harry Potter never went to Hogwarts, but remained in the cupboard under the stairs in his own fantasy world.

In Tom-All-Alone's there all the fascinating squalor of Victorian London, the rookeries, the gin houses and whores roaming the streets, Jack the Ripper as well as Asylums and extreme poverty – all the things we know are horrible but find endlessly fascinating all the same – plus some darker things we are used to reading about in more modern novels. 

It doesn’t matter if you’ve never read Bleak House or The Woman in White because you won’t miss anything, and the books won’t be ruined for you if you read them later. If you have read one of these books, you will recognise little bits and it will be fun to compare it with the original. If you know all the sources she has been inspired by and drawn on, you will feel really clever as you recognise her allusions.


*I am listening to it again RIGHT NOW because I'm seeing it again tomorrow!


  1. Oh dude, I have literally written entire reviews that are just like 'READ IT!' so this is actually really good! (Are you turning into a book blog?! *SCREAMS EXCITEDLY*)

    Anyway, so yes, since this involves The Woman in White in some way I am EXCITED TO THE MAX! Or something. But excited indeed.

    Oh, oh, and the Harry Potter theory is something I only heard a few weeks ago, but it upsets me SO MUCH that I can't even stand it. Actually, the one I heard was that Uncle V beat him up and he's in a coma for ALL THE BOOKS, so that's way upsetting. *Cries*

    1. That is SO much more upsetting!

      At the moment I seem a bit book blogish... we'll seee