Lead Review (Once A Monster)

  • Book: Once a Monster
  • Location: London
  • Author: Robert Dinsdale

Review Author: tripfiction



As a keen follower of London Mudlark, Lara Maiklem, on social media, the main characters in Once A Monster by Robert Dinsdale were immediately appealing. The date is 1861 and Nell Hart is a ten-year-old orphan. She’s part of a Dickensian group of mudlarks with a Fagin-style leader, Benjamin Murdstone. The children sift through the fetid mud on the banks of the River Thames for treasures ranging from coals and dead cats to lost jewellery and money. The profits from their finds are handed over to Murdstone, who lives off their earnings, providing doss-house accommodation and rations in exchange. Murdstone lives in hope of a great find that will change his circumstances. He has already dragged himself out of poverty once, but his rise was followed by a crashing fall and he craves the comfortable life he once led. The relationship between the master and the children is complex and we see that Murdstone isn’t entirely unsympathetic.

Everyone’s fortunes look set to change when a body is washed up by the tide. The mudlarks initial response is to rob the body, but Nell realises this huge and disfigured man-monster is still alive. She builds a rapport with Minos that promises to redeem both their situations, but others have plans that put both of them at risk. Nell’s own impossible dream is to become a ballet dancer. Her mother used to stitch ballet costumes and once took her to the theatre, where Nell was introduced to dancing.

Where Nells seeks to help, Murdstone sees an opportunity to exploit Minos. He tells his sponsor, “We live in an age when men are desperate for wonders. Let’s serve them one – let’s make mankind believe in a myth.”

Minos himself is unsure about his past. He is haunted by dreams in which he kills people – both attackers and innocent – and this torments him. He doesn’t know what his origins are, or whether his dreams are actually memories, and his desire is to find out. He knows that he has both good and evil within him, with different aspects of his personality dominating, according to circumstances. Mostly he is terrified that the monster will prevail. What is certain is that his good deeds make him more human and when he loses control he becomes more physically like the beast he fears becoming.

Once a Monster is a monster of a book – perhaps 100 pages too long but otherwise an engrossing and a magical tale. It examines the myth of the Minotaur and brings the story to Victorian England. Essentially it illustrates that even the most placid of us can be roused to anger and each has a monster within us. Equally, we can be redeemed by good deeds.

The author balances episodes in the lives of the mudlarks with glimpses of life in high society and flashbacks to the ancient Greece of myth and legend. He gives us a fascinating amount of detail, including contrasting glittering scenes from the Alhambra theatre with the Bazalgette’s modern labyrinth, the London sewer system, which tamed the rivers flowing through the city and took its effluent off the streets.

The characters are either sympathetic or ghastly caricatures, according to their role in the plot – even their names are reminiscent of Dickensian fiction. But again, each has the possibility of redemption and we can’t be sure what their eventual outcome will be.

The denouement is a long time coming but satisfying, though the wrapping up at the end is rather rushed. You’ll have to read the book to see why that isn’t a contradiction! I wouldn’t ordinarily pick up a book about magic but I’m glad I had the opportunity to read Once A Monster. I loved the cover art and would have picked up the book for that alone.

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