Sunday, 7 March 2010

Drood by Dan Simmons

In 1865 a steam train derails whilst it is crossing a bridge at Staplehurst in Kent. Ten people are killed and forty more injured, some very severely. Amongst the shaken but unhurt passengers is the novelist Charles Dickens, who lends aid and succor to the dying and injured. Dickens is lauded as a public hero for his efforts, but the accident has a tremendous psychological impact on him which only seems to worsen as the years pass.


Wilkie Collins, a fellow novelist and sometimes-collaborator of Dickens, observes Dickens' decline following the accident, and is particularly bemused by Dickens' account of a spectral figure called 'Drood' who appeared in the aftermath of the crash. Dickens apparently becomes obsessed with finding Drood, embarking on lengthy explorations of London's criminal and literal underground in search of the figure, aided by Collins. A private investigator named Fields joins the chase, informing Collins that Drood is a serial killer and mass-murderer, and Collins soon finds himself embroiled in a complex and clandestine struggle. These events are made all the more confusing due to Collins' own reliance on opium (a painkiller for his gout) and the fictional events of the two novels that Collins and Dickens are inspired to write by these events (The Moonstone and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, respectively) become entwined with the 'real' events that are transpiring.

Drood is a complex novel, huge in length, exacting in detail and relayed to the reader through a narrator so unreliable - Collins - that is very hard to know what is 'real' (as in 100% back up by historical fact), what is reliable (or true in the sense of the novel's narrative) and what is pure fantasy (either an outright lie or a drug-induced fantasy). As with Suzanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Simmons has attempted to write a book that is almost Victorian in its own construction (not to mention its formidable and possibly unnecessary length), but unlike Clarke's book, Drood is less obviously a fantasy, existing somewhere between historical novel and a literary and metaphorical work. Simmons also raises a lot of issues and ideas here, from the struggles all novelists and writers face in writing their books (thankfully without descending to self-indulgence) to the social issues the day. He even finds time to further explore the aftermath of the events of The Terror, his previous novel about the Franklin Expedition, which took place a few years before the start of this novel.


The result could have a confusing mess, but Simmons' skills as a writer and the orchestrator of an immense and complex narrative shine through here. The writing is strong, the story is page-turning and the characters are convincing, although also increasingly repellent as the book goes on. Wilkie Collins, our narrator, becomes particularly unlikable as the book nears its conclusion and his less savoury aspects (such as his scandalous home life) are emphasised whilst some of his more positive ones (his work on behalf of 'fallen women') almost go unmentioned. In particular, whilst the book's fantastical elements and more far-fetched moments can be explained as part of Collins' drug addiction, one plot point towards the end of the book is pretty hard to swallow and rather unconvincing.

Overall, Drood (****) is a rich, well-written and satisfying novel, very clever in construction, which will reward re-reading. However, the ending is something of a let-down and the motives ascribed to (very well-known) historical characters are sometimes dubious. The book is available now in the UK and USA. Guillermo Del Toro has bought the movie rights to the book and is planning a film adaptation for the time after he has completed work on The Hobbit.

8 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Still contemplating whether I want to read Drood after reading The Terror, which was good but overlong.
In the hands of Del Toro, the movie should be quite good, though!

Anonymous said...

Overlong book about a writer as bleak and dry as Dickens seems too daunting to me. Not much better when it seems fired rather by dispute than passion.
But perhaps through this challenging dimension it becomes attractive again...

ediFanoB said...

DROOD is a great read. I liked it a lot. But I'm sure a lot of people are afraid to read such a long novel. My review has been as positive as your well done review.

N. R. Alexander said...

Now don't get me wrong, I really did enjoy Drood, but I couldn't help but feel it paled in comparison to The Terror - perhaps becase that latter is easily one of my top five favourite fictions of the 21st century. Drood, meanwhile, felt like a slog at times, and for me, the endless pages Simmons wasted rewording research materials really took the wind out Drood's sails.

Still, Black Hills here I come. Dan Simmons is an excellent writer, and though I was disappointed in Drood, I think his shorter novels - The Terror and Hyperion excepted - are usually his best.

ediFanoB said...

Black Hills and Hyperion are both on my shelf. Hope to read them soon :)

James said...

Interesting to hear the ending is a bit of a let-down - I thought The Terror (as brilliant as it is) also had a rather weak ending.

Anyway, got Drood on my to-read pile.

Salt-Man Z said...

I'm not sure I can think of a Simmons' novel/series that didn't have a comparatively-disappointing ending.

Doesn't bother me too much; the rest is just that good.

I loved The Terror and I'm really intrigued by Drood.

Liviu said...

I am very curious what people will think of Black Hills since while I utterly loved it and thought it's the best Simmons ever, I saw opposing opinions too though they tended to harp on the complexity of the novel which moves back and forth in time and space, so it takes a while to see what's what...

When I read Drood I was very impressed but as time passed the novel kind of paled in my memory, while for me The Terror suffered from my overexposure in polar fiction and non-fiction, so I found it less interesting than otherwise...