D (A Tale Of Two Worlds) – A New Book By Michel Faber – Fantasy That Fails To Fly, Review by Erica Wagner
Every morning, the heroine of Michel Faber’s new book wakes in her cozy bed on the south coast of England. Dhikilo leads what might look like an ordinary 13-year-old girl’s life, but things are not always easy for her. Dhikilo was born in Somaliland – not Somalia, as she must repeatedly insist – and adopted by Ruth and Malcolm when she was just a year old. Girls at school make fun of her name: “Some names were a problem to have and others weren’t.”
This might lead the reader – whether younger or older – to believe that this story is going to take Dhikilo on a journey of discovery into her past, but that’s not what occurs at all. Just a few chapters in, something extremely odd begins to happen to language. The letter D mysteriously vanishes from everyone’s speech – everyone except Dhikilo’s. When she attends the funeral of her beloved history teacher, Professor Dodderfield (“Oerfiel” in the new parlance), she discovers that he’s not actually dead; and it is he and his companion sphinx, Nelly, who draw Dhikilo into their plan to rescue the vanished letter D.
The fantasy tale that results doesn’t quite come off. An author’s note reveals that Faber (who had said he would stop writing novels for adults after The Book of Strange New Things was published in 2015) began this story decades ago, in part as a homage to Charles Dickens. Dickens’s names or versions of them (Cawber, Pumblechook, Magwitch, and many more) run through the book, though it’s hard to see exactly what they add. Dhikilo must venture into another world to rescue the Ds, stepping through a magic door to do so; there are loud and somewhat clanging echoes both of Narnia and Oz.
In that other world, known as Gampalonia, there are entertaining details: gleaming Ds carried through the air by dragonflies, kindly cat-headed people known as the Drood; but the story lacks drama. Dhikilo encounters prejudice and oppression, both of which she escapes in a not entirely convincing manner, completing her mission at no real cost to herself. She gets cold and hungry, but there’s no sense of peril, or that anything is truly at stake. Michel Faber’s novels are often distinguished by his mastery of eerie dread; that’s precisely what’s missing here.
- D (A Tale of Two Worlds) is published by Doubleday (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.