Dickens from the Start, No. 4 - Oliver Twist, or a Railway across China

So, I read Dickens's evergreen childhood-of-crime classic, 'Oliver Twist'. back before Christmas as part of my Dickens from the Start series, and after doing so, realised an eternal truth of reviewing books that everyone knows: I have nothing to say about it. 

How do you review a book like 'Oliver Twist'? Everyone knows the story, everyone has seen the films, if not the book, and the characters are an integral part of the mental landscape of crime and childhood for a large proportion of the literate, English-speaking world. You all know Sikes and Fagin, so there's nothing I need to tell you about them. The Artful Dodger is an old childhood friend of yours, so no need to introduce him either. You're going to have to forgive me, but I'm gonna to tell you a story instead.

My own beginnings with this particular edition of 'Oliver Twist' are perhaps more noteworthy than anything else I have to say, so here we go. I bought this copy in 2005, having moved to Japan and forgotten/not had enough luggage space to take any books along with me. I borrowed the odd one from friends and re-read and re-read the one I'd carried onto the plane with me, and then admitted that, maybe, yes, I needed to find some more books. However, that was easier said than done, as the Kyoto book scene is not the Tokyo book scene, with its enormous English-language sections of department book stores, reaching out endlessly over floors and floors of well-lit and delectable book spaces. Nope. I had to really look in order to find a place with English language books, especially one with novels, as opposed to textbooks or non-fiction, and finally, thankfully, eventually found one, late one school night (I remember it being dark, and raining) on a street north of the centre of the city. I should also mention that I didn't have a lot of money to splash about on fancy titles I'd get through in a day, so I bought (as you may have now guessed) 'Oliver Twist' and the Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes: each a fat wedge of a book that was going to keep me going for a very long time. 

The outcome of all this is that my first and over-riding memory of reading 'Oliver Twist' is reading it by tiny book light on the top bunk (of three) of a enormous train going from Shanghai to Chengdu in the Sichuan province of China (I got stuck into Sherlock Holmes first, so I didn't get to Oliver Twist until on my uni break in March). This train was no joke. It barely stopped in the 40 hours it took to travel what is nearly 2,000km cross country, and we were all stacked up in 3 bedded bunk in epic carriages with no means of escape. You know they talk about trains where the loo is a hole that goes straight onto the tracks and you have to be careful not to slip and fall through it? Well. Food came by occasionally on a little trolley but we mainly ate cakes things, that I guess are like Twinkies (?) that we'd bought in epic quantities from the Carrefour near Shanghai train terminus. A little boy was on the bottom bunk opposite ours with his mum, making motorbike noises when we came close to a road and then later drinking too much orange juice and throwing up on my friend's bunk, only about 20 hours in. Ha. He also had a little word game that he tried to play with each of us, which inevitably ended with him laughing at the hilarity of adults being unable to pronounce even the simplest Chinese sounds correctly (stupid atonal English). I remember wearing a red and white fleece tracksuit the whole time, freezing, and sleeping with my valuables strapped around my waist inside my sleeping bag, in case someone tried to steal them in the night. Children were everywhere, some healthy-looking, some not, as well as ancient men and squawking women, and the emaciated on the way some factory in back-water hell-hole China.  So, those are the conditions in which I first read 'Oliver Twist', and it all seemed rather fitting.

This time, I enjoyed it, but it wasn't even nearly the same without the emotive and vaguely threatening Chinese backdrop. Nancy is silly - way, way too much to be anything other than melodrama - and Oliver suffers from the same pretty-but-dim soft centre of the story sickness that also troubled Walter Hartwright and Laura Fairlie in 'The Woman in White'. The anti-Semitic portrayal of Fagin has been so overdiscussed that there's no need for me to touch it, other than to say, it is what it is. Bill Sikes is horrifying, and the murder scene is still as frightening to me as I'm sure it was to the contemporary audience. All the coincidences are ridiculous (see again, 'The Woman in White') but what can you do? I know this isn't much of a review, but I'm not sure there's anything for me to say.

I did some Dickens research for work lately and came across this quote from Virginia Woolf, which sums up my feelings perfectly:

'Dickens's works are so much 'an institution, a monument, a public thoroughfare trodden dusty by a million feet' that 'all readings of Dickens are, from the beginning, rereadings.'

And that, my friends, is why today's post brought you a story rather than a book review. I'm glad it's not just me.

 Title: Oliver Twist (although the full title is 'Oliver Twist, or, The Parish Boy's Progress)
Author: Charles Dickens
Genre: Classic Fiction
Publisher: Penguin Classics, Film and TV Tie-In Edition
Publication date: Originally, 1837-8; this edition, 2005.
Format: Paperback, 554 pages, bought as per story above.


  1. Wow! Great review, as it were! And the best description of a Chinese train ride that I have come across in some time!

  2. Tom, is that sarcasm...? :)

    As I said, I just sat down to review it and thought that everyone knows exactly what I'm about to try and tell them. And after the discussion the other day about emotional/subjective reviewing, it seemed like the thing to do.

    It WAS a pretty intense train ride - I'm not surprised that it is amongst your favourites, even though it's a story I'm sure you've heard a thousand times :)

  3. I love that Virginia Woolf quote - I've only read A Christmas Carol out of Dickens work but it was so familiar to me before I started that it felt like an old friend. I want to read Oliver Twist soon.

  4. Isn't it great? It summed up perfectly how I was feeling, and also how I think people do experience Dickens, as we come to the books already familiar with the names and the issues involved. That is definitely the case with A Christmas Carol, as you said, and we probably have The Muppets to thank for that :)

  5. I love this union of very English book and China! I have a similar experience - reading the complete works of Shakespeare (well, chunks of it) on jeepneys in the Philippines... definitely a clash of cultures!

  6. Thanks! This is the post I mentioned in your 'When God was a Rabbit' post earlier, about sometimes having Not. A. Thing. To. Say.

    That sounds exciting reading on jeepneys! Tell that story sometime? :)


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