By Jane Smiley
Penguin Books, $14.00, 210 pages

The good news has two parts: The book is fresh and it clocks in at 209 pages. What is left to be said of Dickens’ personal life? More ink has been spilt on the man’s existence than blood at Balaclava. One suspects the current Willkie Collins mania is really just a sidewise angle on a new approach to him. “What,” one might fairly ask “chance does Dickens or the reader have?” A good one, it turns out.

This brief book is the best one volume account of Dickens’ life. The author knows the man and his world not only as a scholar and admirer, but as a fellow professional novelist who has fought to capture the truth of her world in prose fiction. The book’s tightly controlled story of Dickens’ ardor acting in and ghosting of Collins’ play The Frozen Deep is illustrative of why this book succeeds. The play is drawn from the greatest mystery of the mid-Victorian period (Crimea, the Great Exhibition): the vanished Franklin Expedition. Smiley’s light, fleet hand helps the reader to touch a flashing point in her subject’s swift life and epoch. And, without impeding narrative drive, she illumines aspects and qualities of Dickens one either doesn’t know about or hasn’t considered in quite this way. In the manner of all very good books, to buy this one is to invest in your own best interests.

Larry A. LaBeck