Reviewed by Antonella Townsend
Personally, I think Charles Dickens would be chuffed to read how his 1837 novel, Oliver Twist, has been re-imagined by Simon Lelic in The Haven.
Much has changed in the intervening years. Dickens’ long descriptions of place and the poor orphan have become a fast-paced thriller, very hard to put down even for a minute. Oliver Twist is now Ollie Turner, but also an orphan. Female participation is scattered evenly – there is gang leader Felicity Fagan, Bill Sikes becomes fashionable Maddy Sikes, but still owning vicious dog Bullseye. Inclusion reigns supreme, the brainiac computer whizz is a girl in a wheelchair, poor children are responsible, creative and keen to learn, and a subtext of compassion for refugees weaves its way through the narrative.
Much remains the same, the hero and main protagonist is of course a young boy. Characters battle between good and evil, greed and selflessness, revenge and redemption.
The one page Prologue sets the tone and gives away nothing except curiosity.
The first line of the first page of chapter one and we are off – Ollie is being kidnapped and his guardian is murdered. He escapes his captors, led by Dodge, through a maze of sewers and derelict train tunnels that lie beneath London – and he is still wearing his, two-sizes-too-small, dinosaur PJs. Their destination is a sanctuary for homeless children called The Haven.
Unlike Fagin’s lair, The Haven saves homeless children from the gangs of London, with the intention of educating them and setting them up for a successful life, thus taking on a role that the authorities are neglecting. It acts as a small utopian society organized by older children and a mysterious character, who Ollie meets midway through the novel. It is a place where children are self-determining rather than being puppets of adult values. The multiple gang leaders of London, who use neglected children as foot soldiers in the drug trade and other criminal activity, play the role of the original Fagin.
Within The Haven there is an investigation team, who are caught up in solving the mystery of disappearing gang children, this leads to the quest of stopping ‘Mad Maddy’ Sikes from destroying London. Not much else can be said without using a spoiler alert, which would be unpopular with author and publisher.
The pace rarely slows; the twists and turns in the plot keep the pages turning at high speed. The ending surprises and illustrates how poverty corrupts the best of intentions.
Lelic writes at a relentless pace that holds readers attention from the first to last page. Character rounding takes second place, although, through all the activity, he conveys a sense of place well.
Simon Lelic is a British author of thrillers and mysteries. Previously a journalist in London, he is now based in Brighton, where he lives with his wife and children. He has written adult novels: The House, The Child Who, The Facility, A Thousand Cuts, and The Rupture. He was nominated for the British Crime Writers’ Association, New Blood Dagger Award, given to first books by previously unpublished writers.
The Haven is the first young adult book Lelic has written, intended for readers 10+, nevertheless, I found it to be a compelling read, despite the fact that I fall outside the demographic by decades.
By Simon Lelic
Hachette Children’s Books