Fiction — audiobook. Read by John Lee. Books on Tape, 2009. 29 hours, 49 minutes. Library copy.
The British author Wilkie Collins serves as the narrator to Simmons’ novel, and he begins the tale by wagering that the reader has never heard of him let alone read one of his books or seen one of his plays performed. Thanks to the book blogging community, I can assure poor, forgotten Wilkie Collins that is not the case and, thanks again to the book blogging community via Trish’s #droodalong, I picked up an audiobook version of Simmons’ novel. (Incidentally, the narrator of the audiobook version of this book, John Lee, also narrated the only book by Wilkie Collins I have read as well as one by Charles Dickens.)
I planned to follow the reading schedule for the #droodalong posting about chapters one through twenty-two today and then twenty-three till the end in November. However, I finished the audiobook earlier than planned and, after fielding several questions on twitter about whether or not people should continue past the halfway mark, decided to discuss the whole book in a single post. Truth be told, my opinion about the novel changed dramatically after the first half, and a post about the second half would have been a complete one-eighty from what I originally wrote about the first twenty-two chapters.
At the heart of this novel is the inspiration surrounding Charles Dickens’ final and incomplete novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. A cursory glance at Wikipedia whilst listening to the novel informed me that Dickens’ exhibited “strange behavior” in the five years before his death following Staplehurst railway disaster, and Simmons novel speculates on the effect the real Edwin Drood had on both his behavior and his death.
By the end of the first half of the novel, Collins has met the real Drood, whom Dickens first met while attending to the wounded after a train accident in 1965, and Collins has begun to suspect Dickens of murdering his ward, Edwin Dickenson, whom Dickens met during the train accident.
The real-life Drood is the child of a British engineer and a Egyptian Muslim, who was stoned to death following her husband’s abandonment, and he is presumed to be guilty of a litany of crimes by a private detective blackmailing Collins for information about Drood’s whereabouts. Drood hired Dickens to write his autobiography under the threat of death, and paranoia begins to set in for both Dickens and Collins – both authors see Drood, women, or men in their own likenesses wandering their homes and working their unfinished novels.
Having cast his narrator as a well-known writer, Simmons sets a high bar for himself, and I particularly enjoyed the vivid imagery provided by his descriptions – my nose wrinkled in disgust over the stink of the Thames. And the mystery surrounding Drood is so heavily cloaked in the smoke and darkness of a late night stroll in Victorian London that I was glad to have the novel at hand during a week of fog and rain.
The novel also follows some of the structural aspects of the Victorian literature Dickens and Collins’ are known for, particularly the repeated references to the novel’s “dear reader”, and I now want to pick up Victorian literature and books about Victorian England. I did learn a tremendous amount about the life of Charles Dickens; his treatment towards his wife is nowhere near as demonstrative as one would assume for a couple with ten children.
At the halfway point, I was wondering if there were references to Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood that I was not picking up on seeing as how I have not read that particular novel yet. While I still do not know if that is the case, much of the novel references the works of Collins, particularly The Moonstone. Not only are their spoilers for this novel, but there is a lengthy comparison between The Moonstone and Dickens’ work that I felt was rather lost on me since I have not read the novel.
I enjoyed the insight into Wilkie Collins, particularly Collins’ insistence he feels no animosity towards Dickens despite Dickens’ popularity with readers and critics or the fact that Dickens received most of the credit on their collaborative projects. His insistence is slowly chipped away in a rather humorous change from “we were equal partners” to “really, I wrote the whole play”.
However, the novel takes a really sinister turn in the second half and I felt Collins the character becomes lost in the second half of the novel. Maybe Simmons wanted to write a cautionary tale about abusing opiates, or maybe he could not reconcile the story he wanted to tell with the character he created in the first half. Either way, I began to loathe Collins and found myself wishing the novel had been told from the point of view of Drood or Dickens.
Overall, I think Simmons’ novel suffered from his desire to insert every fact, rumor, and idea he had into the story. The amount of time spent on backstory during chapters twenty-three and forty weighed the novel down tremendously; there is no other way to describe this than as a slog. The excitement of chapters forty through forty-seven kept me going all the way until the end. But the conclusion of the novel was not enough to redeem the novel for me, and knowing the ending, I wish I had listened to abridged audiobook, instead.