D (A Tale of Two Worlds)
"When she got back home to Cawber—if she ever got home—she would ask Ruth if she could have a blanket like this, instead of the puffy duvet with the princesses on it. Malcolm had been dropping heavy hints that for Christmas she might be getting an iPad. She didn't want an iPad. She wanted a blanket whose weave she could feel with her fingertips."
Many a speculative fantasy story has spun on a what if question. Michel Faber's new novel D (A Tale of Two Worlds) enters this literary line, pivoting on the query: What if all of the Ds disappeared from our language? If you're looking for a little Narnia-esque escapism for adults these days, Faber's book may be just the ticket, straddling the line between juvenile and adult fiction in an original tale that draws heavily on the fantasy canon, while quietly addressing wider social and political ideas.
Young protagonist Dhikilo hails from Somaliland (no, not Somalia!) but lives in the English town of Cawber-on-Sands with her adoptive parents. Frequently bullied and considered to be other because of the color of her skin, Dhikilo nevertheless finds delight in the school history lessons of Professor Dodderfield. After the letter D mysteriously disappears from speech and all written words, Dhikilo is deeply disturbed (and obstinately continues to use it). Upon learning of the now-retired Dodderfield's death, she ventures to his house and is nevertheless greeted by the man himself, who sends her off on a journey to the other world of Liminus—the origin point of the ban on D. And thus Dhikilo and the Professor's pet dog Nelly Robinson (in actuality a fearsome sphinx) are off to meet new creatures and discover that magical dragonflies are carrying the letter D off to be burned by the tyrannical leader known as the Gamp.
Faber acknowledges his debt to the oeuvre of Charles Dickens, both inherent in characters like the kind but bumbling Pumblechook and more transparent in the naming of the Bleak House hotel, but there are undeniable reflections of C.S. Lewis's Narnia and Frank L. Baum's Oz throughout the novel as well. When Dhikilo and Mrs. Robinson stumble through a portal in Professor Dodderfield's house, they enter a snowy landscape redolent of the vista Edmund and Lucy famously discover through the wardrobe and embark on an adventure where they meet various groups of creatures both delightful and threatening. The trip to the capital city, with its majestic tower and arbitrary access rules smacks of a certain well known journey down a yellow brick road, but Dhikilo's use of magic and music to herald a return of agricultural abundance and natural life presents variation in a way that may be felt keenly by those of us who read the book in the midst of a winter in quarantine, looking toward spring.
Faber's originality may be hampered in ways by the extent to which he calls on Dickens, Baum, Lewis, and more, but he does ultimately weave the strands into an engaging and enjoyable story. Dhikilo's struggle to make people understand where she comes from and not just equate it with a place of similar name adds a unique and pertinent element to the story, and her search for belonging and identity are classic but nevertheless resonant themes. Faber writes with a wit and whimsy that keeps the story moving apace.
Sometimes it's pure delight to curl up with a childhood favorite, but having an older audiences' new twist that engages, if fleetingly, with race, politics, and language serves as a reminder that the delights of a swift fantasy adventure are for the hands and eyes of wandering children and wondering adults alike. Perhaps the greatest appeal of Faber's novel is that it could be enjoyed by a parent and child together without catering to one nor the other, which isn't a niche we often see deliberately filled. Click here to request a copy of D (A Tale of Two Worlds) for curbside pickup! Perhaps you'll find yourself reading it aloud to an adventurer young or old.