Saturday, 4 August 2012

Liz Jensen: My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time (2006)

Edition: Bloomsbury, 2007
Review number: 1461

If the title did not warn the reader, the first sentence's appropriation of the famous opening to Rebecca would make it clear that My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time is not going to be entirely serious. It is a personal history, told by Charlotte, a prostitute from late nineteenth century Copenhagen. When times are hard, she manages to inveigle her way into a respectable house as a maid, only to be accidentally catapulted into twenty-first century London bye the HG Wells-style time machine hidden in the basement.

My Dirty Little Book is broad comedy, sometimes even cruel (Charlotte's treatment of the dim overweight woman who accompanies her is a case in point). But it is still very funny. In fact, I was reading it alongside a P.G. Wodehouse I hadn't read before (The Girl in Blue), and Liz Jensen held her own even in this company. Few indeed will be those readers who follow Charlotte's exhortation in a time of adversity to return the book in disgust to the shop or library from which it was obtained.

I have tagged this review as science fiction because of the time travel element, though one of the reviews quoted on the cover describes it as "less science fiction than fairy tale", which is in many ways true. I don't have a tag for fairy tale currently, but I actually think that science fiction is the right genre in which to place this book (subsidiary to humour, which is obviously its main point). My feeling is that Tom Holt and Terry Pratchett are readily filed under science fiction or fantasy, because the genre themes and ideas are important elements in the structure of their books, provide much of the humour, and are the subjects of parody. Not only that, but the detailed nature of the genre elements is frequently given in some detail and is important to the story: dragons in The Colour of Magic (to pick one example) are not just fairy story beasts with no explanation, but projections of a human belief in dragons and a parody of Anne McCaffrey's Pernese dragons. And I think that all these criteria hold for Liz Jensen's book as well. Time travel is essential to the plot and the humour; there are moments of genre parody, particularly of H.G. Wells; the time machine itself is analysed further (there is even some discussion of the famous grandfather paradox). In fact, the nature of the fuel which propels the time machine is the closest that My Dirty Little Book comes to having a serious point, consisting as it does of three liquids embodying the struggle of history (blood, sweat, and tears), mixed with that more comical essential lubricant, strong alcoholic spirits.

The plot of My Dirty Little Book is farcical and not particularly important, except as the means by which the humour is generated. This mainly takes the form of Charlotte's observations of the worlds of both time periods. She is a most lively storyteller, occasionally a little too keen to address the reader directly, perhaps, but certainly an individual and entertaining voice. The amoral narration and humorous twists and turns of Charlotte's exploits made me think of Harry Flashman, not a bad model for this sort of comic novel.

My rating: 8/10.

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