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Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Book Review: Derby Day by D.J. Taylor

D.J Taylor takes the famous Epsom Derby as the centrepiece for this novel. Around it, he weaves a complex web of characters worthy of Dickens. At the heart of this book is a horse called Tiberius. At the outset, he's owned by Mr Davenant, an in-debt Lincolnshire squire, but the unscrupulous Mr Happerton is hoping to get his hands on him, aided by his friend, Captain Raff. Happerton has just married the daughter of Mr Gresham, who finds himself falling ill and becoming more amenable to his son-in-law than he had intended. In addition to these, we are also introduced to a few other characters as the narrative progresses.

I have to say, I found this a little difficult to get into, probably because of the necessity of flicking around the introduce the various characters. The middle and end was much more enjoyable, as I located my favourite characters and grew to know them. There's the intelligent Rebecca Happerton, more than complicit in fleecing her father, who I yearned to learn a little more about. Then there are the Lincolnshire characters with their own little subplots plus the ageing jockey, Major Hubbins. The most surprising character turned out to be Captain Raff, who captured my attention in the middle of the book and stayed strong until the end.

It's very difficult to analyse a book with this scope so I'll just pick out a few choice facts. You don't need to be interested in horse racing for it to be enjoyable and the most important thing about this novel is the characterisation and description. Scroop Hall is a magnificent creation, full of echoes of Chesney Wold in Bleak House. There is a character 'summing-up' section to tie up loose ends which may not appeal to modern readers but to aficionados of Victorian fiction it's a pleasurable throwback. Finally, the actual up-close depiction of the Epsom Derby is luscious and I loved the reporter involved in the finale.

This is an excellent book for lovers of neo-Victorian fiction. Definite echoes of Dickens with some touches of Collins and Thackeray thrown in plus some witty observations courtesy of the narrator.

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