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Life’s a Pip, with a Twist

Richard Rayner is the author of several books, most recently the novel "The Devil's Wind."

GEORGE HAGEN’S second novel, “Tom Bedlam,” opens, memorably, in Victorian London. “It is quite possible that Emily Bedlam was simply a very good woman,” Hagen writes, “but to her son, Tom, she appeared insane.” This sentence -- lightly rhythmic, gently humorous -- introduces our hero, who accompanies his mother each morning to the hellish porcelain factory where she paints happy faces on figurines.

Emily, the embodiment of Christian virtue, smiles at scorn and turns the other cheek when slapped. Carefully, she saves her hard-won cash, keeping the notes pressed between the pages of a Bible, plotting for the moment when she has saved enough to take Tom to the country for fresh air and a better education.

Meanwhile, they live in a tenement that leans like the Tower of Pisa: “There was an imploring quality to the structure; its cracked windows reflected the sky, and its front door was ajar in the same way that the mouth of a bitter man gapes open.”

Writers are readers too, and in these brisk opening chapters, Hagen evokes the books he loves, notably “David Copperfield” and “Great Expectations.” The presence of Dickens (and a touch of his genius) is nowhere more evident than in the character of Tom’s reprobate father, the failed actor William Bedlam, who shows up in the tenement -- returned from the road and an “astounding King Lear” -- only to trick Tom into revealing that there is money in the Bible, at which point William promptly vanishes again.

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Emily, robbed of her savings, goes mad in ways that are first funny, then tragic. “Streaky bacon” was what Dickens called this sort of thing, and the tonal juxtaposition gets Hagen’s bildungsroman off and running.

Eventually, a benefactor appears to take care of Tom’s education, which must be endured at a ghoulish institution named Hammer Hall. Here, Hagen tells us, "[t]he masters sat at a table at the head of a room. They might have been patients in an infirmary for the hacking coughs, bent backs, and accouterments they carried -- canes, spectacles, and ear trumpets.”

Tom encounters bullies named Privot and Mansworth and a righteous stoic of a victim, the saint-like Arthur Pigeon, whose arrival at the school sets off a war among the boys that recalls the adolescent nightmare of William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies.” Like Copperfield, Tom is too confident and self-assured for us ever to fear for his future, although at Hammer Hall he makes a fateful compromise, which haunts him even as it seems to guarantee his success. His life, we’re nudged to realize, will be a bumpy moral ride.

The story of that life, however, proceeds with a smoothness belying its complexity. Tom studies medicine in Edinburgh and meets his wife, with whom he travels to South Africa to begin a career. Although deserted and repeatedly cheated by his father, he realizes that he is obliged to be not only a better parent to his own children but an understanding son, as well.

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It isn’t easy: “The outrage that had burned in his chest for all these years was a vital sustaining force,” Hagen writes; “it had driven him to bring up his children in defiance of his father’s shabby betrayals and powered his convictions about marriage and moral decency. It was his very foundation. For all he knew, to forgive this man might rob his heart of the ability to beat.”

This novel’s truths, then, are those of middle age. We can’t mend the mistakes of our parents; we will fail in our own way, and events will go on surprising us and kicking us in the teeth; if we’re lucky, we survive. The brisk, era-spanning narrative of “Tom Bedlam” recalls William Boyd’s “The New Confessions” or “Any Human Heart,” rather than the devilment of Robertson Davies or the almost eerie way that Peter Carey conjures Dickens in his masterful “Jack Maggs” -- although Hagen’s approach shows less ambition, and he makes no attempt to match any of these writers, let alone Dickens, in terms of sheer prose energy and elan.

There is, perhaps, something odd about a writer who adopts old forms without irony or inflection. But there’s also something delightful in Hagen’s determination to make a Victorian three-decker novel shine with contemporary clarity and move at the speed of “The Sopranos.” Some plot developments and coincidences seem predictable; soap devotees or even decent guessers will quickly twig to the identity of Tom’s long-lost sibling -- shades of Bobby and J.R. Ewing, rather than “Bleak House.” But the novel’s climactic chapters, set at the end of World War I, move with urgent surprise. Twist is piled upon twist in a series of lovely scenes, and William Bedlam, thankfully unreformed, is last seen at a party, stealing the buffet.

“But what would I do there?” he implores when Tom suggests that he leave the endless beaten scramble of London and come to South Africa. On the level of sheer narrative pleasure, “Tom Bedlam” delivers. Hagen makes storytelling look easy, to the dismay, and certainly the envy, of many authors. *

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