Chaplin and Company by Mave Fellowes

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Chaplin and Company by Mave Fellowes

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: With a gloriously eccentric main character, this quirky book tells both the stories of those living on London's canals and also of one boat in particular and its strange history of owners.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: May 2013
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
ISBN: 978-0224097352

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In Chaplin & Company, Mave Fellowes takes a quirky look at life on London's canal boats. Yet, while her story is full of eccentric characters, not least the main human character of Odeline Milk, who moves to the boat that shares the title of the book after her mother passes away to pursue her dream of becoming a mime artist in the more culturally enlightened big city after a lonely life in provincial Arundel, the book is delightfully free of sentimentality. I say the main human character, because this is also the story of a boat with a remarkable history of owners, and also a story of the strange life on the canal which somehow exists beneath the city through which it flows.

Odeline, named after her absent father, Odelin the great clown of a travelling circus with whom Oleline's mother has a brief relationship, encounters a drunken canal warden, a tattoo covered traveller, an illegal immigrant running the local canal café and the violent man who runs the café that is based on such illegal labour. The reader gets glimpses of each of their lives at various points in the book, but also the strange history of previous owners of the boat, from the original builder of the working boat running goods from the Midlands down to London during the war, to the evacuee who they take on board, through various other temporary owners of the boat when it falls into disrepair.

This seems a lot to cover, and in some ways it is. What appears frustrating at first as the story of Odeline's life is constantly interrupted by these back stories, eventually come together towards the end of the tale. Yet still, there is a sense that Odeline is a strong enough character to carry the book without the deviations into immigrant labour and so on which are sometimes left a little stranded. Vera, the café manager for instance assumes a greater importance to the story at one point but the story remains up in the air. Similarly, the tattooed traveller, Ridley, is also intriguing and yet we get little of his back story. There is no indication that this is the intention, but I'd gladly read future books featuring almost all of the main characters to get more of their lives.

However, there are two towering strengths of the book. Firstly there is the gloriously dysfunctional Odeline, whose sole method of communication to begin with are a series of barked questions to which she needs the answer. She is a wonderful character, with the physiology of the herons that live on the canal. Dressing in a bowler hat, waistcoat and over-size shoes, she is as angular as the heron, forging ahead in her search for cultural appreciation and seeking her father. Yet despite her resistance, she gradually and touchingly learns the value of friendship and relations with the other residents of the canal.

The second strength is the portrayal of the boat in particular as a living object. She almost sighs in the water and has a story to tell that is as fascinating as any of the main characters. There is a sense throughout that while the canal dwellers may not have as much in terms of physical possessions as the land living characters, these belongings mean more to them and are more highly valued.

The book doesn't go where you expect it to, either in terms of plot or style. Fellowes never wastes a word, and little throwaways are always picked up later in the story. Sometimes there remains a sense that perhaps there are too many wonderful strands to be contained in the one book, but despite that, it is hugely entertaining and delightfully quirky without being sentimental. It will probably make you want to go and live on a houseboat. As Odeline's hero Marcel Marceau might have said, this book is .....!

Our enormous thanks to the kind people at Jonathan Cape for sending us this book.

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson might also appeal to fans of art-based quirkiness and is well worth reading.

Buy Chaplin and Company by Mave Fellowes at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Chaplin and Company by Mave Fellowes at

Buy Chaplin and Company by Mave Fellowes at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Chaplin and Company by Mave Fellowes at


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