The author of Schindler's List explores the early adulthood of Charles Dickens's youngest son Edward, nicknamed Plorn. An underachiever in his father's eyes, Plorn was packed off to Australia to test his mettle. His adventures there as a sheep farmer are recounted here, with flashbacks to family life with his larger-than-life father.
... meticulously researched and flawlessly written ... Plorn is a compelling narrator, an endearing mixture of youthful innocence and cocky courage. He has a cool-headed ability to observe and describe other people, social situations and the natural world ... The real-life Dickens family was complicated, and Keneally mines that intrigue for all it's worth. Most profoundly, beneath the lively stories of Plorn, his family and his Australian odyssey, this novel is about British colonialism, on which modern Australia was founded. It's about the Brits' repression and poisoning of aboriginal culture, as well as the heady, complicated ways in which they shaped a nation's character, culture and economy. That's no small feat for a novel, especially one by a writer in his 80s. And that is Keneally's gift—to create historical fiction with every shred of fact available, while rounding it out with a powerful narrative that, eerily enough, could be exactly what happened.
Keneally has created an entertaining and moving novel spinning out from this historical fact, creating a vivid picture of colonial Australia ... One highlight of the novel is an encounter between Plorn and some bushrangers, and even here, his father's illustrious name changes the direction of the meeting. Some of the quirky ways people speak in The Dickens Boy, the hidden aspects of their ancestry being revealed, and the need for a young man to find his way in the world provide a link back to Dickens ... However, if, like Plorn, the reader is unfamiliar with Dickens's novels, the book stands on its own as an inventive and enticing vision of 19th century Australia ... The Dickens Boy is wonderfully complex, and, like Dickens's works, deserves reading and rereading. We are lucky to have Keneally continuing to write novels which capture so much of our past in a complex and eminently readable way.
... a novel that is part-Bildungsroman and part-Boy’s Own adventure yarn—one that is strong in atmosphere but curiously thin in terms of plot ... Observing Australia through Plorn’s eyes, we are given a ground-level perspective on the country’s strange, raw beauty ... We are also introduced to an entertaining cast of supporting characters ... Keneally’s main aim is not to re-imagine one of Dickens’s novels but to re-examine the writer himself from a new, oblique angle. It is certainly a bold idea ... Unfortunately, the novel itself is captured rather better by Plorn’s later remark on the beautiful appearance of the Australian countryside in winter: spangled with frost and condensation, it 'glinted forth promises it might not keep'.