Read Mr. Timothy: A Novel
I received Louis Bayard’s Mr. Timothy: A Novel as a Christmas gift more than a year ago. Since it is a sequel (of sorts) to Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol, I decided to wait and read it over the holidays. I shouldn’t have waited.
If you’ve read my earlier reviews of The Meaning of Night and The Shadow of the Wind, you know I am fast becoming a fan of the emerging “Victorian Noir” genre: tales set in the romantic but shadowy Europe of Dickens and Hugo, but with modern pace and psychological character depth. It’s a love that began, I think, with that long-ago favorite, The Quincunx by Charles Palliser. Most of those books seem to echo the feel of Dickens and his ilk—colorful characters, quaint pubs, sinister urban underbellies, and fog-shrouded alleys and gaslit streets, for example—without offering literal echos. Mr. Timothy: A Novel goes farther. The Timothy of the title is none other than Timothy Cratchit himself, Tiny Tim. Stripped utterly of his angelic sentimentality, Bayard’s Timothy emerges as a fully realized character worthy to number among the best Dickensian heroes.
I should mention that I am not generally a fan of writers making use of another author’s characters. While I have enjoyed more than a few modern takes on, say Sherlock Holmes, more often, we wind up with something like Scarlet, the unworthy followup to Margaret Mitchell’s brilliant Gone With The Wind. Mr. Timothy: A Novel succeeds largely because in Dickens’ original, Tiny Tim is little more than a caricature, a sort of cherubic plot point with a crutch. Building on our shared memory of “God bless us, every one!” Bayard shapes Timothy into a fully realized, if somewhat broken, human being—one that fascinates and, yes, makes us care.
Bayard’s Timothy is young man who, like Dickens’ Pip, say, or David Copperfield, is struggling to find a place for himself in a wide, atmospheric, and often dangerous world. Trying to free himself from his dependency on the generosity of his “Uncle” Neezer (none other than an elderly Ebeneezer Scrooge himself, a man who keeps his house decorated perpetually for Christmas), Timothy earns his room and keep by teaching the madam of a London brothel how to read. Timothy is a man haunted—not by the literal spirits that troubled his Uncle Neezer, but by images of his late father, and by the bodies of murdered 10-year-old girls, who appear in London’s seedy docklands branded with a letter G.
The mystery that follows is a page turner, with a puzzling mystery in a coffin-filled basement, an assault on a gloriously gothic mansion, and a desperate final chase along the urban river. The characters are, well, Dickensian—all colorful, complex, and worthy of the master himself. The mystery is intriguing and the suspense is relentless. But the true stars are Timothy himself, as the events both scar and heal him, and Bayard’s lush, elegant prose, filled with passages that beg to be read aloud and shared.
As another old favorite, Silverlock, reminds me, there is a joy in meeting old literary friends again in a new and unexpected place. Mr. Timothy: A Novel is more than a pastiche. It’s a fully realized and absolutely original novel that is well worth your time. Don’t repeat my mistake and wait for next year’s winter holiday season. Do yourself a favor and read it now.