Saturday, July 11, 2009

Drood by Dan Simmons (audio book read by Simon Prebble)

Author Dan Simmons's novel Drood ostensibly tells the story of the last five years of Charles Dickens's life — focusing on the events inspiring his classic unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood — as told by his close friend and fellow author Wilkie Collins.

That summary is all well and good if you're a bookseller trying to move product based on a familiar author's name and work. But Dan Simmons has produced something much more intriguing than that little attempt at conciseness would lead you to believe.

Simmons's greatest achievement is his accomplished characterization of the true protagonist, Wilkie Collins. Simmons has allowed Collins plenty of room to breathe, and to stick his own foot in his mouth. Simmons shows all of Collins's facets, and even allows him to be mostly unlikable while still managing to retain the reader's interest and sympathy. Collins's narrative voice feels so true, it's as if you could try out Collins's own novels (like The Woman in White or The Moonstone) and it feel like revisiting an old friend.

Simmons also exercises his usual firm control over the setting — something he has excelled at since his debut, Song of Kali. In Drood, Victorian England is as much a character as its people, and Simmons's portrait is as detailed as a pointillist painting.

At first I was disappointed by the direction Simmons was taking. But I slowly realized that this was due to my own preconceptions. What had happened was the author had circumvented my expectation and was going in a different direction, taking me completely by surprise. I love it when an author sneaks up on me like that. from that point on, I was willing to let Simmons lead me where he wished, and it became much clearer what an astoundingly original novel Drood really is. Simmons uses history as a starting point but adheres closely only when it suits him. Yet at no point does Drood veer off into the unbelievable.

Audiobook reader Simon Prebble's embodiment of Collins is nothing short of phenomenal. Prebble's skill with various regional British accents adds depth to Simmons's characterizations (though he seems to have learned his Chinese accent from Ben Wright on radio's Have Gun, Will Travel). Prebble also gets the often-dry humor across that written text often does not. His reading of Drood is sure to be an award contender, and I'll be going immediately in search of other audios by him.

It takes time to travel the twisty, treacherous path Simmons has designed, but the destination is far more than worth it. Simmons's characterization of Collins transcends any interest in Dickens the reader originally had, leaving one with doubts and sadness along with a new insight into the antagonistic friendship between a greater and lesser writer. It's hard to predict these kinds of things in advance, but Drood feels like a modern classic.


David Cranmer said...

Scott D. Parker also gave this story high marks. It does sound like a classic and will be tossed into my Amazon cart. Thanks.

Craig Clarke said...

Thanks, David. I'm glad to know that I got my point across. :)

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