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.

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