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D: A Tale of Two Worlds – A Brexit allegory inspired by CS Lewis

Book review: Michel Faber’s fantasy novel is seamless and sure-footed throughout

D: A Tale of Two Worlds
D: A Tale of Two Worlds
Author: Michel Faber
ISBN-13: 978-0857525109
Publisher: Doubleday
Guideline Price: £16.99

D: A Tale of Two Worlds is Michel Faber’s first work of fiction since his announcement in 2014 that he was giving up “serious” novel-writing. The Dutch-Australian author achieved great success with his debut, Under the Skin (which was adapted into a film starring Scarlett Johansson), the Victorian pastiche The Crimson Petal and the White (which became a BBC miniseries) and The Book of Strange New Things about a Christian missionary in outer space.

D is aimed at older children and young teenagers, not exactly a niche audience. As an American book-tour organiser reminds the hero who has discovered and published the eyewitness testimony of a fifth Evangelist in Faber’s The Fire Gospel: “We got a ways to go yet before we top Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings.” D is also billed as marking the 150th anniversary of the death of Charles Dickens and claims to feature Dickens as a protagonist alongside a number of video-game-type multiples or composites who generally bear the names of his more cartoonish minor characters. The tale, inspired by CS Lewis, has been understood as an allegory of Brexit Britain (Faber’s home) offering grown-up readers on that landmass the small comfort that, as the export route from Dover to Calais closes, another door to Narnia has opened.

In its political message D reprises the concerns of an essay Faber wrote for a collection to support the Stop the War Coalition in 2006, “Dreams in the Dumpster, Language down the Drain”, about the decay of reasoned speech in politics: “Is this the first time we’ve had a seven-year-old boy as president of the free world?” Whatever the mental age of the current incumbent, Faber aptly counters him with a teenage girl, a refugee from Somaliland, a country not internationally recognised. Dhikilo has been adopted by a white English couple and lives a contented, if somewhat solitary, life in a quintessentially English south-coast town until she wakes up one morning to find that the letter “d” has disappeared from the language.


This leads to lots of excellent silliness that shows Faber’s facility for the charm of the children’s classic while also enabling pot-shots at Tory policy: soon there is no local “doctor”or “dentist”; history at school – “always the Egyptians and sometimes a bit of Hitler, Napoleon or the Romans” – is now taught by a “ Mr Unstable”. Dhikilo, her own name compromised by the change, must go on a quest to retrieve the “d”, travelling at the urging of the Dickens character to “The Great Calamity”, an alternate world overtaken by environmental disaster which has at its heart a blended Anglo-American makeshift metropolis – containing both Owning Street and a crudely glaring Tower of Light – ruled over by The Gamp (guess who).


Faber is a writer who flaunts a certain shamelessness about devising gambits to catch the reader’s attention. The narrator of The Crimson Petal and the White compares himself to the prostitutes who form the milieu from which the heroine springs. The woman driving around Scotland in Under the Skin turns out to be an alien picking up human males for the food supply of her native planet. The Book of Strange New Things chases the spectre of some hidden Heart-of-Darkness horror. D: A Tale of Two Worlds, in a less hokey way than its predecessors, is equally adept at grabbing and keeping interest, seamless and sure-footed throughout.

Faber’s other fictions used their fantastic framework to tackle difficult yet ordinary themes and experiences. Under the Skin conjures a frightening ordeal of bodily abjection, isolation and drudgery while embracing the stunning beauty of the natural world. Crimson Petal combines an anger at social injustice with a frank acknowledgement of venal complicity with it. Strange New Things turns an uncomfortable spotlight on the private communications of a married couple. D, by contrast, avoids psychologically disturbing elements and gently fulfils its responsibilities to its chosen public including enticements to good nutrition and the learning of new words as well as reassuring reflections on the problem of bullies. Whereas Faber’s previous plots tend to explode or simply dissolve their central premise rather than working it through, D pursues symmetry and resolution.


Whether D earns its stripes as a tribute to Dickens will hardly matter to its target audience. He is portrayed here in the guise of Professor Dodderfield, a sometime history teacher fond of the oddly Gradgrindian catchphrase, “Facts! Stick to the facts!” In so far as Dickens did assume such a role, he would not have been pleased that a “revolution” magically fixes the dystopia Dhikilo enters. The naming of the teacher’s dog – albeit one that can turn into a sphinx – after Dickens’s mistress, Ellen (Nelly) Ternan, does not comport well with D’s guiding precept, “respect never hurts”. Although, perhaps it’s a step up from one biographer’s description of Nelly as “invisible”.

Faber’s Dickens appears to serve the broad function of old-fashioned stickler for enlightenment standards – along with science teacher “Mr Dawkins” whom we happily do not meet – just as Dhikilo denotes the “good immigrant” who needs these standards to navigate her way. She is at once completely insusceptible to the typical influences of English teenage girls and unscarred by injury from her place of origin. Faber has said that he alludes to the practice of female genital mutilation through the community of cat-like creatures – another Dickens multiple – called the “Drood,” who have had the tips of their tongues cut off.

You have to hope that his young readers won’t get this reference, even as you wonder what it means to write a story of a girl from Somaliland while not writing the story of a girl from Somaliland. The happy ending sees the securing of a friendship between the young girl and the professor and waives contemporary wariness regarding another Victorian writer cited as an inspiration, under his real name, without the “d”s, in Faber’s author’s note: Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll). Lucky it’s only a book.