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Marley by Jon Clinch

Published by Atria Books on October 8, 2019

Thanks to Charles Dickens, the name Scrooge is synonymous with a certain crusty bitterness, a coldness of heart and lack of generosity. Thanks to Jon Clinch, we learn that Ebenezer Scrooge was once a different man. Clinch explains how Scrooge became the heartless miser who merited a life-changing visit by Christmas ghosts.

In Clinch’s expansion of the story Dickens told in A Christmas Carol, we learn how young Bob Cratchit meets Scrooge, but the bulk of the story fills in the details of Scrooge’s partnership with Jacob Marley. Scrooge & Marley is in the business of transportation. Scrooge keeps the books, both real and fictitious, and lives for the music played by the numbers he records. Marley handles transactions, some legitimate (rum), some unsavory (slaves), and some illegal. Scrooge is aware and approves of Marley’s tendency toward fraud, but he doesn’t know the half of it.

Marley is written in modern prose, but the names that Marley invents for fictitious people and businesses — Krook & Flite, Squeers & Trotter, Inspector Bucket — are worthy of Dickens. Scrooge is depicted in his youth as a man who would rather tend to his accounts than attend a Christmas party. He has no time for pleasure, including keeping company with Belle, the only woman who cares about him. Yet at this time in his life, Scrooge is capable of love, or at least of appreciating Belle’s kindness and generosity. Belle’s father is reluctant to give Belle’s hand in marriage, however, because he has doubts about Scrooge’s character, largely related to Scrooge’s involvement in the slave trade. Scrooge resolves to make whatever changes are necessary to win Belle’s hand — a decidedly unselfish act that prompts a schism between Scrooge and his business partner.

Scrooge’s sister Fan is Belle’s best friend. While Fan’s mother thinks she would be a good match for Marley, Fan sees Marley for what he is, much to Marley’s consternation. Clinch imagines Marley as a charming but murderous rogue, a con-man whose people skills complement Scrooge’s talent with numbers. Yet Marley is more than willing to betray Scrooge if his partner’s newfound aversion to the slave trade will stand in the way of wealth acquisition.

Marley, of course, is a ghost by the time A Christmas Carol is told. Perhaps Clinch reimagines the chains Marley drags in Dickens’ story as the chains that bound the slaves he transported. Dickens made clear that the chains are related to Marley’s pursuit of wealth while alive, but if Marley was in the slave trade, it is easy to picture the chains as a fitting punishment for his earthly crimes.

Clinch deftly incorporates some of the melodrama that makes Dickens memorable, but does so in an understated style that is more suited to modern fiction. While the straightforward plot teaches lessons a reader might take from a Dickens story, the lessons are appropriately subdued. There are no ghosts of past and future, although Marley does have a premonition of the wronged souls he might encounter in his afterlife.

Just as A Christmas Carol ends on a hopeful note, suggesting that it is never too late to change for the better, Marley suggests the possibility of redemption at the end of a misspent life. Yet the novel also suggests that redemption comes only to those who choose it. Perhaps, as Marley tells Scrooge late in his life, there is no justice, but Marley is not in a position to ask for it. Perhaps the ledgers of which Scrooge is so fond, when applied to Marley, will never balance. The man’s efforts at decency, particularly with regard to Fan, are inevitably undercut by his self-interest. The little good he does and the questionable remorse he professes surely cannot compensate for the evil he has done.

And that, the reader will come to understand, is why Dickens envisioned justice for Marley as an eternity of tormented wandering. Clinch’s novel ultimately takes the lessons of the Dickens story and inverts them, illustrating the lesson that a chance of redemption is only a chance. It is up to the person who is given that chance to decide whether to seize it. Clinch illustrates that lesson with convincing characterizations and an imaginative plot, giving readers a better understanding of a classic story.


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