If someone says Oliver Twist to you, the chances are you’ll immediately think of the 1960 Lionel Bart musical Oliver!, Victorian London, and the Artful Dodger. The latter is the subject of a new sequel to Oliver Twist, written by Terry Ward. In Charles Dickens’ original, Dodger (real name Jack Dawkins) remains fairly anonymous in many ways; we, of course, learn something of his streetwise nature, and that maybe there is a half-decent lad hiding somewhere in his character. For all his wiles, he’s still young and therefore liable to be caught out – eventually collared for the theft of a snuff box, and thrown in jail before (presumably) being transported to a penal colony in Australia.
Ward’s novel picks up where Dickens left off, recapping the events of chapter 43 of Oliver Twist and our last sighting of the Dodger, before heading into a prologue that wraps up Fagin’s story and introduces the book. It transpires that we are about to read an autobiography, of sorts, as Jack Dawkins himself has provided a bit of a foreword that details his encounter with a certain Mr Charles Dickens; the famous novelist was well known for taking names and locations he came across during his long walks & reading, so this fact is drawn upon in this instance. It is said in Dawkins’ letter that Dickens had based his story on accounts he came across during his days as a law reporter, which could well be partly the truth.
In telling the story from Dawkins’ perspective, it means there’s less pressure to try and emulate Dickens’ own writing style; Oliver Twist was written in the third person, in typically descriptive fashion. It also gives the reader a chance to get to know Jack a bit better, as we can explore his thoughts and feelings, which give a good indication of how Ward sees his character. On top of that, it ensures the focus remains on Jack Dawkins throughout, with no major subplots – unlike the various threads running through Oliver Twist.
The book definitely owes a debt to its source material in more than just the personnel – just as Oliver seems to have an endless supply of bad luck, in something of a precursor to EastEnders, the Artful Dodger faces more than his fair share of bad timing, as well as action and adventure. For me, too, the idea behind the book allows it to serve its own social purpose: it can be easy to dismiss people in the Dodger’s position, assuming they’ve brought it on themselves, when actually they might just have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s as applicable now as it was back in Victorian times.
Whilst there are moments where Dodger’s voice becomes a little grating, and comes out with the odd bit of phrasing that feels anachronistic, Jack Dawkins is a pleasurable read. Perhaps a little too much is given away early on, and some developments in the Dodger’s personality & behaviour do seem to come in very quickly; it could potentially be strung out a little bit and make these changes more gradually, just for an increase in suspense & plausibility. Nonetheless, it’s jam-packed with action, and has some incredibly gripping sequences – a fitting outing for a much-loved character from classic literature.
Jack Dawkins is available in paperback and electronic formats (via The Conrad Press).