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.
In that other world, known as Gampalonia, there are entertaining details: gleaming Ds carried through the air by dragonflies, kindly cat-headed people known as the Drood; but the story lacks drama. Dhikilo encounters prejudice and oppression, both of which she escapes in a not entirely convincing manner, completing her mission at no real cost to herself. She gets cold and hungry, but there’s no sense of peril, or that anything is truly at stake. Faber’s novels are often distinguished by his mastery of eerie dread; that’s precisely what’s missing here.
The story – in terms of motivation and cause-and-effect and worldbuilding, which are as important if not more important in fantasy than in realist writing – doesn’t really cohere. Things just sort of happen. Loose ends dangle. An intrusive narrator – survivor, perhaps, of an early draft – comes in for a page or two, then fades. If I had to guess why Faber spent so long writing the book, I’d say he had a series of wonderful ideas and then struggled to incorporate them into a story. It’s testament to his storytelling gift and the warmth and charm of his writing that it doesn’t much matter in the end.
Faber acknowledges his debt to The Wizard of Oz, to Narnia, to Wonderland and, of course, to a certain Charles Ickens. As an evoted Ickensian, I ought to love this book. The scheme is inspired, but D is curiously unsatisfactory. The Sunday Times review of The Crimson Petal and the White (2002) described Faber’s reimagining of a Victorian doorstopper as a “psychosexual cauldron”. D is more of a chaste bouillabaisse. There are wonderful things in it, but the stock is under-peppered. Be kind, is the message. Be good. Dare to stand up to dictators. One doesn’t disagree, but one wishes for greater darkness in the telling.