A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

March 18, 2011 at 13:15 (Book Reviews, Classic Literature, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction) (, , , , , )


Charles Dickens, it has been said, writes comic-book characters in epic proportions (and this was said in the days when “epic” was neither a movie genre nor an internet meme). His creations are boldly-outlined things of good and evil; caricature pastiches of the sins of the rich and the foibles of the poor, moral platitudes stringing together monstrous moments of suspense. A Tale of Two Cities is filled with his most typical of characters, and for at least the first half can offer neither anything new, nor even particularly stimulating. The reader grows to love Darnay and his family–but only because he must. The nagging feeling of being set up, and the enormous globules of pathos wrung from every scene, do grow somewhat tiresome, particularly when offset with so little activity or action.

That the book’s surprise central character turns out to be Carton, a sneering, cynical lawyer only a plot twist away from turning villain himself, is a marvellous turn of events, and so unlikely that despite Dickens’ heavy-handed foreshadowing, chapters in advance, it remains astounding even to the final page. Even in the simplicity of the plot, the climax of the book is so daring, and bears such a beautiful and rare theme, as to make the most hard-hearted of readers hold for a moment of solemn circumspection.

Ultimately, the best of Charles Dickens’ novels is a tangled skein of often interesting and occasionally dull slices of life, gathered together with plenty of notification, but with style and panache to form something singularly beautiful. Its resounding success relies on the frailty and wonder of that–Recalled to Life–and if the miraculous ending only has power because of the lengthy preparations, the climax is still the best thing about this book.


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