Charles Dickens was the Grand Poobah of English literature, but what exactly are “Dickensian novels”? According to Francine Prose at The New York Review of Books, they are books with “a large cast of vividly drawn characters, some of them grotesques with comically descriptive names and odd tics of speech and behavior; a plucky orphan who overcomes a childhood blighted by humiliating poverty or simple lower-class misery; numerous and ingeniously interconnected subplots; panoramic shifts of location; [and] a narrative that makes the reader finish each chapter eager to begin the next”. As best I can tell, Dickensian novels should also have a fairly explicit social commentary; Dickens was no great fan of what the Industrial Revolution was doing to the common people, and he made that much very clear in just about everything he wrote. So, here’s a list of seven contemporary Dickensian novels that can bring all of this – and more – to your book shelf.
Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
You can probably tell that Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell is a Dickensian novel before you even flip open the cover. The length is the very first thing you notice about it – most editions run over 1,000 pages! And Dickens was nothing if not wordy… If you’re not too intimidated to tackle it, you’ll find the story is a bit more magical and fantastical than anything Dickens wrote, but the setting and the era definitely match up. Set in early 19th century London, it follows two magicians, one grumpy sod who likes to do things by-the-book, and one young renegade who likes to play it by ear. Read my full review of Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell here.
Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver
Okay, maybe it’s cheating to include Demon Copperhead in a list of Dickensian novels, because it is a very deliberate and explicit adaptation of one of Dickens’ books, David Copperfield – but I love it so much, I’ll never pass up a chance to recommend it. Barbara Kingsolver moves Dickens’ classic faux-autobiography to contemporary Appalachia, but it still follows an orphaned child who grows up in dire circumstances. She weaves in all of the agony and ecstasy of the original tale, while converting the social commentary to the current opioid crisis in the United States. Read my full review of Demon Copperhead here.
A Brief History Of Seven Killings by Marlon James
Vividly drawn characters? Check! Numerous and ingeniously interconnected subplots? Check! Panoramic shifts in location? Check! We’ve got all the ingredients for Dickensian novels here in A Brief History Of Seven Killings. This exhilarating novel centers the (real!) assassination attempt on the life of iconic Jamaican musician, Bob Marley. The violence came at the culmination of a period of massive social and political upheaval in Jamaica, just two days before the general election of 1976. Marlon James traces these events, and their ripple effects, across decades and continents.
True History Of The Kelly Gang by Peter Carey
Dickens was no stranger to creating characters based closely on real people, so True History Of The Kelly Gang is a Dickensian novel on that front. Peter Carey delved into the world of Australian historical figure Ned Kelly, a bush-ranger renowned for his violent crimes (and violent end). While Ned Kelly’s fans like to paint him as a Robin Hood-type, stealing from the rich to advance the poor, Carey draws a somewhat more accurate portrait, one of a complicated man who lived outside of the law in a burgeoning colony. Fun fact: Ned Kelly’s and Charles Dickens’ lifetimes overlapped, so the time period of the book is of itself Dickensian. Read my full review of True History Of The Kelly Gang here.
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
Even though it doesn’t have the brute heft of some of the other Dickensian novels on this list, Colson Whitehead has the plucky orphan and the social commentary down pat in The Nickel Boys. Even though the setting and time period are very different, the atrocities in Whitehead’s and Dickens’ worlds are alarmingly similar. Elwood Curtis finds himself shipped off to a disciplinary school, where he’s subject to abuses beyond most people’s imagining. Dickens definitely would have appreciated Whitehead’s interrogation of power abuses, and the determination of spirit in the main character. Read my full review of The Nickel Boys here.
The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili
The Eighth Life might be more closely related to the sweeping multi-generational magical realism epics of writers like Gabriel García Márquez, but there are definitely Dickensian elements mixed in as well. Of course, I can only speak to the English translation (brought to us by the brilliant bilingual duo, Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin), but I’d imagine the same is true of the original German. Haratischvili nails the Dickensian elements of vividly drawn characters, emotional narrative arcs, sharp social commentary, and compelling storytelling. Plus, it’s a brick of a book, running some 950 pages. Read my full review of The Eighth Life here.
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
A charismatic child living a life of oppression and violence, a subtle critique of technological and social upheaval, moments of celebration and devastation in equal measure, and a life journey stretching across continents? Is it a Dickens novel, or Washington Black? It’s both! Esi Edugyan’s take on the Dickensian tradition places the story initially on a Barbados sugar plantation, where an eleven-year-old slave is chosen to be the manservant of an eccentric inventor (and, incidentally, abolitionist). The two of them are drawn together across impossible divides, in this startling and moving story.