Our Mutual Friend opens in true Dickens’ fashion with a grizzled man and a young woman rowing on the murky waters of the Thames. A repulsed Lizzie Hexam and her father have just found a corpse in the river.
In a sudden change of environment in the next chapter, we head over to Mr and Mrs Veneerings’ ‘bran-new house in a bran-new quarter of London’. I’m not sure what’s more horrifying, the grimy scene we just left or the shiny, well polished world of the Veneerings with their extravagant dinner parties and ‘bran-new’ artificial friends.
What brings these characters together in one book is an old miser’s will, and the body of his son John Harmon, found in the Thames. As always, Dickens’ mix of characters is a delight and his settings range from the gaudy dinner table of the Veneerings to my favourite, the dark and peculiar taxidermy shop owned by the gloomy Mr Venus.
A couple of my favourite characters are Mr and Mrs Boffin who, on the discovery of John Harmon’s body, inherit the large fortune of their boss. The likes of these bumbling, well intentioned servants, now dressed in the finest of clothes, brings a lightness and warmth to the book which can get quite bogged down with detail in other chapters.
Our Mutual Friend spans a number of years, and at almost 800 pages I feel it could have been cut down a lot. Aside from the main story, there are certain characters and plots that seemed unnecessary and made reading the book hard going at times. However, for every slow chapter there is a storyline full of enjoyment. Whether it’s the cunning plans of the one legged Silas Wegg, or the love story involving handsome Lizzie Hexam and arrogant Eugene Wrayburn. Tension arrives with the entrance of school master Bradley Headstone who falls violently in love with Lizzie and the complex character of spoilt Bella Wilfur is uncovered during the blossoming relationship between her and the mysterious John Rokesmith.
Although there are a lot of long and burdensome paragraphs which I sometimes found difficult to wade through, I was impressed with the use of imagery in others. Lots of the book takes place near the river and in one sentence, Dickens describes the run-down, depressing state of the riverbank where the warehouse signs are ‘like inscriptions over the graves of dead businesses’. Clearly I like these morbid similes as my favourite vividly expresses the dejected emotions of a character when he is feeling down, ‘leaning on a chimney-piece, like as on an urn containing the ashes of his ambition.’
I struggled with certain chapters, but on the whole found Our Mutual Friend both gripping and amusing. I was particularly delighted with some of the descriptions and witty dialogues (mostly involving Eugene and Mortimer). It needs concentration, but should definitely be read by all fans of Charles Dickens!
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