The Potato Factory by Bryce Courtenay Heinemann $272 To enjoy Bryce Courtenay you must first forgive him his indulgences. His prose is prone to over-ripeness, so before the first page is out, the reader has cut a swathe through a description of Victorian London which would make Barbara Cartland blush.
Sewers carry 'a thick soup of human excrement into the Thames' and the Clare Market burial ground is so full that 'gravediggers are up to their knees in rotting flesh'.
Courtenay's characters are equally flavoursome. All Victorian Londoners, it appears, spoke in the vernacular that people adopt when, well, impersonating Victorian Londoners. 'What a corker! Care for a drop o' ruin?' says petty criminal Bob Marley. To which Mary, our heroine, replies: 'Shame on you, Bob Marley. I ain't no dollymop.' But the story itself isn't bad. After a hefty 326 pages, it moves from the backstreets of Stepney to a Tasmanian penal colony. It gets there like this. Ikey is a notorious London criminal. (By all accounts he existed and was the role model for Charles Dickens' Fagin in Oliver Twist.) He is married to resentful, ambitious Hannah but is having an affair with slightly dim but resourceful Mary, who works for Ikey as an accountant.
Mary is a surrogate for Dickens' Nancy. She's an honest hard-working woman but blighted by her love for Ikey. She is deported to Tasmania along with Hannah - there's a coincidence - for their involvement on the fringes of an Ikey counterfeiting scam.
You get a lot of pseudo-Dickens for your money with Courtenay, though he did a more credible job with his first book, The Power of One, which became an almost-successful film.
Courtenay shows that he understands story-telling in its most primitive form but always takes the easy way out with his dialogue. The gawd blimeys are bad enough until along comes a Scot who says: 'Aye, tha' I can, laddie!' Like its predecessor, The Potato Factory is big, bold, adventurous and devoid of anything the reader can believe in.
There are 666 pages of rampageous accents here. It will take a brave reader to get through all of them without the occasional grimace. Enjoy this book by all means. But don't expect to be any better off at the end.