Review by David Harris
Once a Monster is firmly historical fiction – it takes us back to 1861, where the narrative is very much set in the realities of the times: squalor and neglect of the vulnerable, juxtaposed with modernisation via the new sewer system under construction. At the same time it’s also firmly fantasy – actually engaging with a much longer, and older period of history, though a magical concept that its Victorian protagonists, on the brink of a new age of rationalism and progress, find hard to accept among them. Ten-year-old orphan Nell, still mourning her lost mother and her own hopes for a life as a ballet dancer, is forced to make her living mudlarking – not the picturesque enterprise you’ll see highlighted on social media today, turning up curios from a sanitised Thames, rather prowling filthy shores and dredging up anything saleable – bones, lengths of rope, lumps of coal: even a dead cat has value. She’s part of a gang controlled by Benjamin Murdstone who was once a mudlark himself, then rose to wealth and fell again.
He is still looking for that one find which will restore his fortunes. Or rather, his gang of children are looking for it…
Elsewhere in London, a mysterious man named Minos works in the labyrinthine tunnels of the sewers then being constructed. Enormous, misshapen (and are those signs of horns on his head?) but very strong, he’s an object of curiosity and even dread, but his origins are obscure. Lost in his dreams of other lives, other ages, he will develop a close connection with Nell. Both of their lives will be wrapped up with that of Sophia, formerly a dancer at the Paris Opera Ballet, but now hiding herself away in the slum of Seven Dials.
To get the obvious out of the way first, yes, Once a Monster does have echoes of Dickens. You could see Murdstone (itself a Dickensian name) as a sort of Fagin, with his ragged gang of kids. The theme of fortunes made and lost on a twist of fate in the teeming city of trade is also familiar, as is the passion and the anger at those ground down, at the lives wasted. But this isn’t a Dickens pastiche. Once a Monster is actually much stranger than that. The author of The Toymakers and Paris by Starlight doesn’t hide his sympathies – and, as I have said, his anger – but Once a Monster is much more than a novel of Victorian inequality and oppression.
At its centre is Minos, whose name – and the hints of his physique, as well perhaps as his preferred refuge in tunnels and caves – give us a pretty strong indication of who or what he may be, or have been. Minos’s story is a moral story, a story of growth and struggle, his history echoed by and in dialogue with a whole gallery of characters. Dinsdale gives us a fascinating characters study of who Minos is and who he may become. In a city that, like a monster, devours the innocent, there is plenty of darkness to go around and it may enfold Minos yet: but it’s not – or not all – coming from him, and the same central dilemma is posed to all the characters here: to rise – trampling and consuming others – or to sink into the mudflats of Ratcliffe or the rookeries of Seven Dials. Minos’s deeds – good or bad – are written on his frame, the result of hundreds and hundreds of years wrestling with this paradox, but the same truth captures Murdstone, his only friend Dr Bantam, Sophia and indeed Nell herself.
In this book, trades are offered, lives bought and sold. Revenge is a theme, but it’s always second to trade, trade, trade, the network of deals and promises that forms the very fabric of London. Just as Minos loses himself in dreams and nightmares of the Labyrinth, the narrow streets of the city, the claustrophobic passages in the Alhambra Circus theatre, and the new, branching sewers, confine and direct the passage of those caught up in them. All are lost, whether they know it or not, in need of a thread to guide them out.
In a masterpiece of fantasy, Dinsdale illustrates the tunnels and chambers that we all wander – showing how the only way out is found through that thread of kindness, caring, and trust (and perhaps a bit of luck). There are no real villains here, I think, apart from the dark systems and constraints that oppress us all. No real monsters, except the monsters that we turn ourselves – and each other – into. Of those, Minos may be the strangest, but he is not unique, simply the most visible of his type, showing something common to all.
This is an extraordinary book, and it’s one I’d strongly recommend.
David blogs at Blue Book Balloon. A former physicist, he is married to a vicar and lives by a village green sometimes used to film Midsomer Murders, but has, against the odds, survived so far. David works in tax but promises he isn’t going to bring that up here.
Robert Dinsdale, Once a Monster (Macmillan, 2023). 978-1529097375, 512pp., hardback.
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