Author: Michel Faber
Title: D: A Tale of Two Worlds
Let me start by saying that I discovered, with some surprise, that I’m not the intended audience for this book: it’s definitely a children’s book, one of the few occasions where these distinctions do matter. D: A Tale of Two Worlds is full to bursting with good intentions and important issues, from the casualty of racism in modern England to the plight of immigrants from Africa, to xenophobia and post-truth and the power of words. And yet all of them are very much simplified, made slightly anecdotal and not really significant (with the exception of the disappearance of the letter D which becomes the catalyst for our protagonist’s journey) – more like inconveniences than some truly troubling issues. At the same time, it’s a bit of a self-indulgent book, delighting in taking barely concealed potshots at Trump, which for a young reader might be a tad confusing.
While Faber in the afterword indicates his inspirations – mainly Dickens, who even makes an appearance as a very old and eccentric history professor, but also Lewis’s Narnia, Thurber’s The Wonderful O and the Wonderland novels – I mostly felt that D: A Tale of Two Worlds was a modern twisted retelling of Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It is not a bad thing in itself, but I expected a bit more originality from Faber.
But ad rem: Faber’s D: A Tale of Two Worlds is a story of a young girl, Dhikilo, who discovers one day that the letter D is disappearing from the world. Inexplicably, magically, the letter D is being stolen from the language, from books and speech – and with its disappearance, ideas and things whose name start with this letter, begin to change their meaning or to disappear as well. Dhikilo’s only hope is her retired history teacher, professor Dodderfeld, who’s dead. Or rather ea, in the new parlance.
In order to save the world from D’s fatal and definitive disappearance, Dhikilo must embark on a perilous journey to a different reality, the wintry and dangerous world of Limnus. And as befits a proper Bildungsroman, she will survive many magical and dangerous adventures and return not only triumphant, but also wiser, and braver, and more experienced. She will also gain a new friend, a formidable and enigmatic Mrs Robinson: a shapeshifter equally happy in her chocolate Labrador and Sphinx form.
All this sounds quite lovely – and would be, I’m sure, if it didn’t borrow so heavily from the children classics mentioned above, which for Faber’s creation remain an unsurpassed, unattainable ideal. I do like the idea of a tribute to the classics that is more current, more relatable to the modern audience – sadly, this one took this concept a bit too far for it to fully work.
That said, I enjoyed the first, more realistic part of the novel a lot – much more than the second. Dhikilo’s real-life troubles were to me much more interesting than her fairy-tale exploits in the world of Limnus. Her difficult situation as an orphan immigrant from Somaliland in the middle of the very white and very British English small coastal town was timely and interesting. But the remaining two-thirds of the book seemed in contrast surprisingly generic, with various obligatory monsters needing conquering or tricking along the way, and topped by a thinly veiled satire on Trump and his followers.
And here lies the crux of the problem: Faber’s tale is tonally uneven, oscillating between a fairy-tale and a newspaper editorial, and disregarding internal logic in favor of presenting author’s pet peeves. It seems like Faber couldn’t fully decide who is the intended reader of D: A Tale of Two Worlds, and in the end settled on himself. If it sounds harsh, it shouldn’t (well… not entirely :P) – I am of the opinion that authors ought to love their works. Though they should also be able to accept criticism ;).
I was relieved by the nonviolent ending, contrasting especially starkly with the offhandedly delivered reveal of the fate of one of the people of Limnus – the Drood, hated by the nasty little dictator Gamp, had their tips of tongues cut off in what seems like a an organized hate crime. So… fluffy unicorns (umm, sorry, sphinxes) and rainbows, and then – bam, here we are, a race of catlike creatures who cannot speak the letter D because their tongues had been removed. As I said, tonal unevenness abounds. And while some of the adventures seemed very timely and bitter-sweetly real – for example, the unending soulless bureaucracy which can be conquered only when the bureaucrats allow themselves to bend the rigid laws and show their humanity – some seemed too focused on delivering a stinging blow to the real-life model for the book’s villain: e.g. an overpriced hotel which lures guests in but doesn’t want to let them out before it fleeces them out of their money or drives them mad.
As it is, Faber’s novel is interesting enough to breeze through during a lazy afternoon. D: A Tale of Two Worlds is laudably conscious of the mundane problems of the modern world, but ultimately fails to bring a sense of wonder to the magical part of the tale.
I have received a copy of this novel from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My thanks.