A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities - Charles Dickens Would give it six stars if I could. Lump in my goddamn throat. No words. No words at all. Please, please read this book.


Let me count the ways that I love this book. Actually, no - I cannot quantify my love for it. This book is one of the most absorbing and affecting things I have ever read. The prose is utterly perfect. The characters are perfect. The setting is arresting (no pun intended). I didn't think I would love a Dickens novel more than David Copperfield, but this is easily in my list of not just favourite books, but objectively best books I have ever read.

I understand why some people aren't fond of Dickens. His style, particularly grammatically, is very different to what most people expect from their reading. For example, he's deeply fond of commas, which seem to have died a bit of a death over the last century. And there are places in some of his novels where it does read like he was paid by the word. If you've ever had trouble "getting into" him, I'd recommend this as the perfect place to start; it's not as long as some of his novels, and, to my mind at least, there isn't a single piece of filler in it. Quite simply, this is a masterpiece.

I had previously read a children's retelling of the story when I was a child (Top Ten Dickens, which I highly recommend for youngish children - it's hilarious and it also has a lot of stuff in it about Dickens himself) and the story affected me similarly then, as it did now, if vastly less so. As such, I knew how the book was going to end. I did worry that this would cushion the book's impact somewhat. If anything, it heightened it. Sometimes, when you know what's coming, you spend the entire book anticipating - in this case dreading - it, and that was what I felt happened here.

Dickens's prose in this book is gorgeous. He builds the entire narrative from a few strands - a seemingly innocuous beginning - into a rich tapestry, the backdrop being the French revolution, and not a word is wasted. His pacing is excellent. So many authors could learn a lesson from this (including Dickens himself in other books) - you don't need to write thousands of pages about anything. Most stories can be told in far fewer words than that, and told better (not that I'm saying that all 1000+ page books are unnecessarily long, but the vast, vast majority could do with being cut at least a bit). Dickens does a great job of building up dread, even in the places where it feels like there shouldn't be any, at all - for example, when Charles and Lucie get married. You don't ever feel like you're being rushed through event, but the pace is also never languorous. This is a beautiful book, evoking so much despair, and yet so much hope.

And the characters. What bastards some of them are. The only thing I could possibly, possibly have asked for is perhaps a little more depth to Lucie, but that's really by the by - she did occasionally seem like a bit of a "doll". Madame Defarge was deliciously brilliant though, her vendetta revealed little by little along with her depths - the way Dickens slowly uncovers more and more of her true nature and the reasons behind it is nothing short of genius. Miss Pross was also wonderful, and the comparison drawn between her and Defarge towards the end, mirroring a running theme of the relative powers of love and hate, is stunningly realised. And, oh, Sydney. You are responsible for having one of the greatest book ending monologues that has ever existed.

I don't want to say too much about the ending - as much as I think knowing what happened in some ways enhanced the book for me, it might not for others, and I obviously don't know what it's like to experience the book totally unspoiled. But it is, in my opinion at least, one of the most satisfying reading experiences I have ever had. And I'm reasonably sure that, had I not known what was coming, I wouldn't have been able to work it out until the last minute, despite how obvious it seems once you do know? Although, I can't say for certain; I might be wrong!

Who should read this book? Genuinely, there is no one to whom I would not recommend this. This is a book about human nature, about the power of love, but perhaps, even more, about the power of hate. It's a book that plays with big ideas, but never loses its human core - unlike so many other novels, it doesn't get bogged down in its own importance. It is a book that perhaps feels slight at 420 pages, but is in fact the perfect length. Truthfully, the only thing that could get in the way of the enjoyment of this is, I suppose, personal taste; however, I honestly think this book is a thing of beauty, and should be required reading for anyone with a soul that craves words. Five stars is not enough. This book has stolen my heart.