This book is a contemporary retelling of Oliver Twist. In this version Twist (known by his surname only) is an 18-year-old miscreant living on a tough municipal estate. His criminal activities are supervised by a Fagin-like villain named FBoss.
As the story begins, a boy named Harry is on the run from the police. One escape route, offered by FBoss, is that Harry will get a boat ride to Jamaica. On the other hand, Harry is not too concerned about the prospect of being caught, since he hopes to go to the same youth detention facility as Twist, with whom he would be glad to be reunited.
After a fairly lengthy opening, the story goes into retrospect. The reader goes back in time to learn that under FBoss’s leadership Twist, Harry and a girl named Red are conspiring alongside a very frightening Russian Mafia don to steal prints by Hogarth from a London exhibition.
Will this daring heist succeed? What attendant dangers will arise? Will the intended perpetrators even survive?
The narrative of this book is strong and credible. Some scenes are memorable, perhaps because the author’s day job is as a film director. But there is a more fundamental problem. To this reviewer it seems that Grass has been torn between conflicting and perhaps irreconcilable aims. In order to justify the title of his novel he needs to make a decent job of modernising the Dickensian original. But at the same time he feels obliged to inject enough differentiation between the original and his retelling of the famous story. Otherwise why bother rewriting it?
In the event the reader is obliged to switch from one priority to the other. Given the iconic status of the Dickens story – a bestselling classic novel, a film made more than once and a musical – perhaps Grass has set himself an impossible task.
The power of Fagin’s character in the original derives from a racial stereotype which is candidly anti-Semitic, a model unquestioned in Dickens’s time but one to which no contemporary author or publisher would assent.