Review: Nicholas Dane by Melvin Burgess

Nicholas Dane by Melvin Burgess
Final Verdict: 2.75 out of 4.0
YTD: 27

3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

Nicholas Dane is fourteen years old when his mother dies unexpectedly, leaving no one to care for him.  It is only after months of searching that anyone is able to find a relative willing to help but, by then, it is too late.  Though a friend of Nicholas’s mother tries to take him in and care for him, the Social Services will not allow it, and Nick is shuttled off to a home for boys – in other words, Hell.  Nicholas must endure endless cruelty – physical and emotional brutality and sexual abuse from those put in charge of “caring” for the boys.  When Nick tries to escape and do the right thing by telling authority figures about the abuse, his world comes crashing down around him.  Nick eventually gets out, but he struggles through years of shame, self-doubt, and anger.

2 – Characters slightly developed.

While the story is interesting and certainly relevant and while some of the characters and their stories are also believable and interesting, there was a lack of depth in any of them which would have allowed the reader to truly connect with the story and root on any of its characters.  The reader absolutely feels sorry for Nick and wants to see him make it, though time and time again he tries and fails – exasperating himself and the reader in the process.  Characters like Jenny, Mrs. Dane’s closest friend, and Mrs. Batts, too, could have been much more deeply engaged with the story – as they were necessary characters with intriguing personalities and motivations, but they were not allowed to go anywhere with it.  Perhaps the best drawn characters are the more evil ones, like Jones and Tony Creal.  Since much of the book is about evil and abuse, this is a positive point, but it left the book feeling a bit lop-sided and underdeveloped.

3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

Burgess’ language and prose are definitely strengths – he moves a story along quite well, and you can read through chapters without realizing how far you have gone.  Coupled with the dangerous but fascinating nature of the work (Burgess won the Carnegie Medal for a reason) it works quite well overall.  There were moments, though, where the story seemed repetitive and the language seemed almost too soft for the drama of the situations at-hand.  Particularly troubling moments of the story, for instance, were glossed over which, considering this is a Young Adult novel, one could understand – still, I was hopeful for a bit more description and force of prose at times.  If one considers that this is perhaps the Young Adult equivalent of William S. Burroughs or Charles Bukowksi, though, it does make sense – similar themes, but accessible to a younger audience (who perhaps need to hear it).

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
3 – Additional elements are present and cohesive to the Story.

Nicholas Dane is essentially a modern retelling of Dickens’s Oliver Twist.  Oliver and Nicholas are orphaned in similar ways and forced into similar hardships; however, where Dickens may have recognized certain physical and emotional trauma’s, he either was not aware of, could not fathom, or forced himself to completely avoid the even more horrid and secret abuses that Nicholas Dane endures.  The comparison between the two stories rings true near the end, in an almost-exact re-imagining of the scene between Nancy and Bill Sikes.  Burgess takes the scene a bit further than Dickens did – making it slightly more graphic, but the betrayal by Nancy/Stella and the ultimate punishment by Bill/Jones are mirror images.  Still, the themes of child abuse, foster care and Social Services short-comings, lost youth, and permanent emotional scarring by abuse in one’s youth which then shapes their adulthood, is not lost on the reader and is an important psychological and social message.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School / YA +
Interest: Abuse, Coming-of-Age, Youth, Social Services, Orphans, Family, Violence, Crime

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