First published in February 2012.
Lynn Shepherd’s second novel, Tom-All-Alone’s, is a ‘response to the events and themes’ of Bleak House by Charles Dickens. It is essentially a mystery story, but many other elements and genres feature throughout.
The first chapter focuses upon the character of Charles Maddox who is trying his best to establish himself as a private detective in London. He is a former member of the police force who was dismissed for ‘daring to challenge the deductions of a higher-ranking officer’. He uncovers a grave of dead babies in the first chapter, an event which is pivotal to the mystery in the novel.
The second character, Edward Tulkinghorn, is soon introduced. He is an Attorney-at-Law and is revered in his line of work. The majority of the characters – of whom there are rather a lot throughout the novel – come alive. It is incredibly easy for the reader to imagine Lady Dedlock reclining in her rooms or Tulkinghorn going about his business in the capital.
The main storyline at the beginning of the novel is Charles’ quest to find the writer of some anonymous and rather nasty letters sent to Sir Julius Cremorne. He follows a trail across the city, uncovering more mysteries as he goes. A wealth of secrets are exposed throughout Tom-All-Alone’s and quite a few storylines intertwine. The novel is fraught with murders and many twists and turns, all of which are set against the background of London.
In the prologue, Shepherd uses a second person perspective which is relatively unusual in novels of this kind. The reader is addressed as ‘we’ and is thus drawn into the story from the outset. The narrative sometimes takes quite a confidential tone with the reader. We are told things which the characters do not know, or which they do not find out until much later in the book. There is also a constant foreshadowing of events which are yet to come historically.
The third person perspective, used for the majority of the novel, works well. The story is told from the point of view of an unnamed narrator living in a period after the events in Shepherd’s story have happened. Shepherd also uses the first person perspective of a young girl named Hester, who is leaving for London after her mother’s death to live with her guardian, Mr Jarvis. Hester seems unconnected entirely from Maddox and the other events which occur in the story until the book nears its end. Her narrative voice was rather clumsy at times and repetitive in places. I did not like her character at all and found her vain and far too trusting and simpering to everyone she met. She did not seem at all like a realistic character, even when her reasons for being featured in the story were revealed. The narratives themselves did merge together well, but Hester’s voice would have been far more convincing had it been stronger.
The dialects and accents throughout have been well executed and are not overdone. The characters who have accents, be they Scottish or East End of London, wear them well. The vocabulary which Shepherd has used fits with the time period, as do the speech patterns and turns of phrase. The dialogue exchanges themselves work nicely and the conversations throughout the book sound relatively natural.
Shepherd is an incredibly descriptive writer and is particularly good at setting the scene. She vividly portrays the darker side of London, from the crumbling buildings and stench of decay to thieves, vagabonds and prostitutes who walked the streets. Tom-All-Alone’s is rich in the geography of Victorian London and moves through many different areas of the city, all of which were famed for different things. The period details throughout have been well researched. Shepherd includes such elements as the advancement of science, societal conditions, particularly for the poor, and the rise of the Gothic novel, amongst other themes which had prevalence during the Victorian era. Clear divisions are also portrayed between the different classes.
The story itself is rather gruesome at times, but Shepherd’s descriptive style certainly echoes Dickens’ rich writing. Tom-All-Alone’s flows well, and the pace of the novel fits with the unfolding events of the story. One small flaw, however, is that the names of the characters weren’t always consistent.
It is not imperative to have a knowledge of the story of Bleak House before reading Tom-All-Alone’s. Although the novel is a retelling of Dickens’ great novel, the characters and events are self-explanatory and stand alone well. I personally would have enjoyed Tom-All-Alone’s a lot more if the narrative voice of Hester had not been included. She made what would have been an incredibly strong novel dull in some places and slow in others. Her narrative interrupted the flow of the story and made it seem rather disjointed. All in all, Tom-All-Alone’s is a rather clever novel, particularly as it reaches its end, and is a must read for all fans of Dickens, Bleak House, Victoriana and clever mystery stories.