The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is a strangely fascinating tale and you can easily see why it was so popular in its day. The poverty-stricken Nell and her grandfather escaping the villainous dwarf Quilp has all the makings of The Fugitive. Everyone suspects that the grandfather is wealthy and it would be worth while to clap him into the insane asylum while marrying Nell when she comes of age. (A brief note here, Nell is continually called "the child" so I was surprised to find that she is actually 14 years old. This makes much more believable her dual innocence and ingenuity in escaping ill wishers.)
Charles Dickens' early novels often included a road trip, but adding the element of penniless escape from a determined hunt for such innocent figures had me on the edge of my seat. Who would they encounter next? Would chance acquaintances really help Nell and Grandfather or would they try to turn them in for a reward? Adding to that is the grandfather's mysterious problem which leads the fugitives the brink of disaster when it is revealed. This leaves the reader with a gripping sense of peril.
As is always the case, Dickens treats us to a host of memorable characters. Touring the countryside leads to encounters with sideshow type performers, a wax museum, and many other oddities of the time. In this sense The Old Curiosity Shop could be taken to refer to the journey itself, replete with eccentricities that will either move or startle the viewer.
My favorite character was that charming ne'er-do-well Dick Swiveller. Thinking it over, I realized that he is the only character in the book who shows growth and moral development. That is unusual for such a minor character, but as we follow Dick's path through the book we see that he has a talent for discerning the truth, treating others considerately, and for taking action when needed. All this is done without ever making him sentimental or annoying. His story is almost always told through behind-the-scenes action such as when we see him playing cards with the Marchioness. This is a foreshadowing of Dickens' talent which will bloom greatly in his later books.
The audiobook was performed by veteran narrator and actor Anton Lesser. Lesser brings his acting background to more than just voice performances. Sometimes a world of meaning is conveyed through a sigh, a pregnant pause, coy delivery, or deliberate pacing. It left me always eager to return to the book even though I'd read it before.
The Old Curiosity Shop is very enjoyable and not just the soppy, sentimental book we all think we "know" because it is common knowledge that Nell dies in the end.
Review copy of audiobook provided by SFFaudio.