SPOILER ALERT: A few elements from the novel are partially revealed in this review.
I finished Mr. Dickens and His Carol on Christmas Eve, and it still isn’t sitting right with me…kind of like Scrooge’s imaginary “undigested bit of beef.” I honestly cannot decide if I liked it or or not. It isn’t often that I feel that way about a book.
Samantha Silva’s first novel, Mr. Dickens and His Carol, paints a highly imaginative picture of Dickens’ life at the time he wrote his most famous story–his financial straits, his marital tension, his family burdens, and his declining literary success. Silva builds her novel around the skeleton of those basic, historical facts, but she takes bold liberties (which she admits in the afterword) in fleshing out the rest.
Mr. Dickens and His Carol seems wholly unconnected with and foreign from Mr. Dickens’ actual Carol, in point of fact. The story is about Dickens and how he comes to write his book, but the atmosphere is strange and the details sensational.
The only common theme between the two books seems to be that they’re both ghost stories. I won’t go into much detail, so as not to spoil the novel for you further, but there is a supernatural element towards the end of the plot. Unlike Dickens’ spectres, however, Silva’s ghostly presence seems jarringly out of place and adds little value to the novel…except to all-too-conveniently save Dickens from an epic moral disaster.
On that note, I really held my breath all the way through the story regarding Dickens’ character. If you happen to read The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford (an actual history of the creation of A Christmas Carol and a far superior book), you’ll learn that Dickens was not a man of the highest moral fiber, especially towards the end of his life…especially in his marriage.
However, I’d like to believe that the man who wrote the second most popular Christmas story ever (the story of Jesus being first, since that’s where Christmas comes from)–a story about love, kindness, family, and forgiveness–didn’t get the inspiration for his story from having an emotional affair.
Even if he was that kind of man in real life, that’s just not a story I want to read.
Plot elements aside, Silva’s character development, pacing, and settings were well written. I had no real issues with the writing itself…just the story. Her prose was the most delightful aspect of the novel, containing several delicious descriptions and clever lines. The Christmas mood–magic, bustle, nostalgia and hope–was also a highlight for me. That was, after all, the reason I read it right before Christmas.
I know when I opened this review, I said I didn’t know whether or not I liked the book, but I think getting my thoughts down like this has made my conclusion for me: I did not like it. Since the writing itself was good, I don’t quite hate it, but I can’t recommend it either.
If you want a good story about Dickens and the origin of A Christmas Carol, I would encourage you to read The Man Who Invented Christmas. It’s history, not fiction, so it’s a bit slower and certainly less sensational, but it is truly interesting. The movie adaptation of that book is also really enjoyable; it is a much more historically faithful work of fiction than Silva’s novel.
I think next year, for a good Christmas read, I’ll just re-read Dickens’ Carol. There’s a reason that book is credited with re-creating Christmas into the holiday we celebrate today.