Review: ‘My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time’ by Liz Jensen

By oldenglishrose - Last updated: Wednesday, October 26, 2011 - Save & Share - 2 Comments

After two distinctly disappointing reads I needed something that was sure to be good fun and not to take itself too seriously.  Thankfully my mammoth TBR pile is able to rise to any challenge, and after a quick flick through my library I settled on the wonderfully titled My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time by Liz Jensen.  This book was first brought to my attention when the lovely Fleur Fisher listed the title as part of her Clearing the Decks project, in which she chooses books to read and then get pass on.  While they may lead to a reduction of her own library, these posts seem to be only adding to mine as I keep discovering lots of titles which appeal to me enormously.  This particular one she mentioned back in March, it instantly went onto my wishlist and it was the first book I purchased once my self-imposed Lenten book buying restriction was lifted.  It was off the TBR pile and into my main library within the month, which is a pretty swift turnaround for me these days, and I’m glad I got to it so quickly as it proved to be a great piece of entertainment and the perfect antidote to the rather serious books which preceded it.

Charlotte, the narrator, is a young woman living in nineteenth century Copenhagen, where she supports herself and Fru Schelswig, the fat, base old woman whom everyone assumes is her mother, by working as a prostitute.  When the cold winter drives her to seek further employment, she and Fru Schelswig find themselves working for the disagreeable Fru Krak, cleaning her house from top to bottom with the exception of certain forbidden rooms in the basement.  Convinced there must be something hidden there worth stealing, Charlotte cannot help investigating and discovers a mysterious machine left there by Fru Krak’s vanished husband which will change the course of her life forever as it catapults her, all unknowing, into twenty-first century London.

This is the sort of book for which the term ‘romp’ was invented.  It is light-hearted, witty, filled with adventure and generally great fun to read.  If nothing hugely surprising happens, the plot is sufficiently exciting and the narration more than engaging enough in spite of that to draw the reader in and keep hold of their attention throughout.

Charlotte’s voice is one of the key features which makes the book so enjoyable.  She is self-assured and inclined towards melodrama and exaggeration, but her easy humour transforms this from a narrative style that could have been alienating and tiresome (and I know this all too well after suffering through the horrendous exaggeration of The House in Dormer Forest) into one that is self aware and not afraid to be self mocking.  My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time is rather silly and the book knows it and takes great pleasure in being so.  Charlotte’s habit of referring to the reader directly as ‘dearest‘ and complimenting them frequently is just one example of the book’s playfulness which makes it so much fun.

Although people travelling backwards in time to visit periods in history is a subject often addressed in fiction, the reverse situation depicted in this book is not, and Liz Jensen does a wonderful job of imagining the twenty-first century as seen through the eyes of someone from the past:

But the dream did not end, & could not be escaped from so easily, & indeed it then most swiftly turned nightmarish, for waiting at the black wrought-iron park entrance…stood a shiny black carriage of iron, horseless, on four wheels, that growled like a foul-tempered hippopotamus.  Professor Krak bade us enter it through a door in its side: ‘Our means of transport, ladies,’ he said, & then, in a foreign tongue which I presumed to be English, commenced a rushed conversation with the driver of the vehicle, who was – Lord! I could scarcely believe my eyes! – as black as a coal-scuttle, just like in the illustrations of man-eating cannibals I had seen in the cellar at the orphanage!  But before I could scream in terror & make my escape, the machine roared to life with a smooth lurch & we sped into the pellucid gloaming which in that place seemed to pass for night.

All this is related in a mixture of archaicisms and modern slang which seems peculiarly appropriate to a time traveller.  Simple devices such as the use of ampersand instead of ‘and’ provide continuous reminders that Charlotte is from the past.  Fru Shleswig is also given an effective, distinctive manner of speaking, using a sort of Middle English spelling which implies her ignorance and peasant-like bluntness.

The book isn’t without its faults.  For an adventurous book about time travel, it takes a surprisingly long time in exposition building up to this actually taking place and although it is interesting from the beginning because of the narrator the story could perhaps have benefited from starting a bit sooner.  The pacing of the narrative remains slightly uneven throughout the book, but this is never enough of a problem to affect the enjoyment of reading such a thoroughly entertaining book.  I’ll definitely be reading more by Liz Jensen in the future.

My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time by Liz Jensen.  Published by Bloomsbury, 2006, pp. 311.  Originally published in 2006.

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2 Responses to “Review: ‘My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time’ by Liz Jensen”

Comment from oldenglishthorn
Time October 31, 2011 at 3:58 pm

Hmmm, I may have to steal and read this one.

Comment from oldenglishrose
Time October 31, 2011 at 4:29 pm

I’m sure I can locate it for you if you want to, dear one.

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