I’ve been aware of Jez Lowe for many years – he’s a singer-songwriter working very much in the folk tradition. The Dillen Doll is his first novel. I was not even slightly surprised to find that the word crafting and capacity for empathy that drives his songwriting translates very well indeed into longer pieces.
The novel’s title – The Dillen Doll, comes from a song. It’s a well known song and I’d just assumed it was one of those nonsense folk choruses. Dolly the dillen dah – is what I thought it was. Dillen, it turns out, is a Newcastle on Tyne word meaning runt. It turns out there’s a whole set of songs I’ve known most of my life that also come from Newcastle. What Jez Lowe has done in this book is draw on those folk songs, and brought them into a narrative. The songs are evoked in the text and if you aren’t familiar with them, there’s a CD that you can get alongside the book.
This is a story about people living in poverty in Newcastle. Sandgate, Byker Hill, Walker Shore, the waters of Tyne, the keelmen. There’s a long, hard look about what the press gangs meant, and the implications of war for those who may be stolen away against their will to fight for king and country.
This is a setting that gives us precarious employment for minimal wages, homes that do not need to be fit for human habitation, lack of care for the sick and injured, and those with power and money rigging the system to line their own pockets. It all sounds eerily familiar.
The story follows the adventures of young Dolly Coxen – the dillen doll of the title, whose song is written by a blind fiddle player. She works in a pub, and scavenges barely edible veg from the local market. Her man is a person of mystery with a story she does not, initially, know. Her story is about doing whatever it takes to save him as his past catches up with him. She’s a woman with agency in an era where women had very little power. She’s physically disabled, and a singer of traditional songs.
This is a celebration of a time, a place and a people. At the same time it isn’t sentimental and there’s no sense of a rosy glow being added to the past. Times were hard, hunger and privation were constant, conditions squalid – if you were poor. There’s an incredible sense of place and attention to detail that left me with the strange feeling that the author had simply time travelled to do his research.
I really enjoyed this book. You can find out more about it here – http://www.jezlowe.com/products-page/