Review: Tom Bedlam

31 12 2007

I was having some trouble settling into a read. I tried making my way through All Passion Spent, but I had recently finished Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont and I found that All Passion Spent could not hold my attention in the same way that Elizabeth Taylor’s novel did.

Perhaps what I needed was something more Dickensian in feel – as follow up to Mr. Pip and as a prelude to Great Expectations (which I’ll be starting this week as part of the “My Year of Reading Dangerously” challenge). The answer seemed to be Tom Bedlam by George Hagen.

I have to admit that what first attracted me to this novel in the bookstore was its cover. There was something a bit whimsical about it and I picked it up and looked at it on several visits. It was only purchased after hinting to the Artistic Mama that it might make for a good one of my Xmas picks. She picked it up, started reading it in the bookstore, while I was off at the theatre and she had some time to kill. Luckily it hooked her and it came home for both of us to enjoy.

And I did enjoy it. I enjoyed the reading of it too, if that makes much sense. I looked forward to picking it up and diving back into Tom’s story. I didn’t, however, enjoy it as much as I wanted to.

The book starts off well enough with Tom as a young boy, living with an overly religious mother who is always determined to turn to other cheek and questions about a father he has never known. Those questions are answered quite early in the novel and Tom’s father, William Bedlam, an (unsuccessful) actor, returns periodically throughout the novel.  Hagen’s novel traces Tom’s journey after his mother’s death as he leaves behind the Victorian tenement he lived in with his mother and the porcelain factory they both worked at and journey to school, medical school and onto work as a doctor in Africa.  There are pivotal scenes and characters centering around Tom’s time at school and without giving away too much of the plot, it is what happens here and the decision Tom makes that relates very much to the end of the novel.

It was the second half of the novel – the section in which Tom’s family life in Africa is explored – that I found disappointing.  I suppose I had expected that the novel would trace Tom as he struggled throughout childhood and adolescence and would end with him reaching adulthood, rather than going far beyond that and also focusing on the growth of his children.  In that way I found Tom’s journey too brief.  The usual Dickensian revelation also seemed somewhat forced and too predictable.  And the ending itself was, to me, a let down, too abrupt and unsatisfying after I had journeyed so far with Tom Bedlam.

It was enjoyable – the first part particularly enjoyable – but not all that it could have been and that’s perhaps the most disappointing thing about Tom Bedlam.


Catching up with Mr. Pip

16 12 2007

I’ve been debating about the whole concept of “catching up.”

I’ve had time for a few days to post a blog, seeing as the marking has come to an end (for this term at least). I supposed it is the idea that I need to catch-up on all the reading and business of life that has transpired for the past three and a half months that has kept me from posting.

So there will be no catching-up of that time and instead of backtracking I’ll move forward and talk about the book I just put down moments ago.

I’d heard a bit about Mr. Pip before I began my reading and the Artsy Mama read it first (as I was still marking) and highly recommended it.

I didn’t take to Mr. Pip immediately. And that surprised me. I took Mr. Pip along for my train journeys and perhaps that was the problem, all the hustle and bustle of big cities and exam evaluations and getting myself on the right train. Mr. Pip didn’t work its spell on me until I sat down and devoted all my attention to it this afternoon.

The story is told by Matilda, a young teenage girl living on a tropical island that is shut off from the outside world because of war. As the people on the island cope with the realities of this existence, Mr. Watts, the only white man left on the island, begins to read to the children from Great Expectations.

Mr. Watts, as seen by Matilda, is a complex and somewhat eccentric man, but even after Matilda discovers more of his “real” history at the end of the story, he remains in her mind and in my mind and probably in many readers’ minds a sort of magical figure who is all the admirable for inspiring her to believe in her voice and in the power of story.

It is a book about the power of reading and story and character. And it focuses on how literature, how a story and a character connects with you, transforms you, and, most importantly, helps you to survive. It seems quite a simple story and it is told – even its most horrific moments, when the violence of the book, though not entirely unexpected, became quite shocking – with a straightforwardness that becomes by the end of the book quite achingly beautiful.

I’ve never read Great Expectations myself, but I will be as part of the My Year of Reading Dangerously Challenge, and I think as I enter the world of Dickens I’ll carry something of Matilda and Mr. Watts with me, just as they carried Mr. Dickens and his words with them.

required reading

1 12 2007

Until regular posting resumes (in a week or two), I’m going to indulge in some nepotism and suggest you head over to the Artsy Mama’s blog.  She’s got quite the gem of a blog there, always finding beauty in the most surprising and everyday things and she reminds me on a daily basis about what’s important.  And she manages to post every day, unlike some who’ve not posted in months at a time…