Twist by Tom Grass is a contemporary reimagining of Oliver Twist, by one Charles Dickens, in which a homeless young tagger and street artist falls in with a gang of art thieves to pull off an audacious art heist.
The blurb is reviewing the situation:
Eighteen-year-old Twist, one of the most daring street artists in London, doesn’t have much. No money, no home and no family. When he finds himself on the run from the police, Twist knows he’s about to lose the one thing he has left – his freedom.
That’s when he’s saved by the mysterious Dodge who introduces him to charismatic art ‘collector’ Cornelius Fagin and the beautiful but dangerous Red. Fagin has a big deal coming up involving the theft of a series of priceless paintings and Twist is just the man he needs for the job.
Twist is soon drawn deeper into the group and thinks he finally has the chance to be part of something. But as his feelings for Red grow, he discovers she has a secret – one that binds her to the bullying Bill Sikes and means that, unbeknownst to Fagin and the crew, they are no longer playing for money. They’re playing for their lives.
So a young whippersnapper has got his hands on a venerable old text and has the temerity to have fun with it. Twist is kind of like Dickens crossed with Grand Theft Auto. It’s a fast-moving and sly take on a timeless tale, even if the tone is a bit uneven.
The novel is a heist thriller, a love story, a cool Wallpaper style celebration of hoodie chic – is that magazine even still going? – and a gang melodrama. Author Grass has a background in film and computer games, so there’s a lot of free jumping and scrambling across rooftops and car chases, and suchlike. The set-pieces have plenty of exuberance about them – you can almost hear the drum and bass soundtrack kick in when the gang go to work – but the prose can get a bit tangled when it gets over excited.
Grass doesn’t lay the Dickensian social commentary on thick – there’s an enjoyably recycled tech noir feel to this tales of stolen artworks and Russian gangsters – but he’s clocked that the gap between the haves and the have-nots in London these days would make Dickens hold his head in his hands. So the action moves from condemned tower blocks in Newham and across the rooftops to fleshpots in Mayfair all the way up into the gleaming spire of the Shard. It’s all poverty and wealth, rooftops and pavements, and nothing in between.
There’s a lot to like here. Grass sets himself a tough ask with his double heists of six Hogarth prints – I’m a sucker for a good heist – and the thefts are clever and exciting. There’s a fevered description of a nasty Russian gangster’s lurid nightclub in which squid pump along transparent pipes.
I’m not sure I really cared about any of the characters, but they’re cleverly reimagined. Fagin, or FBoss as he’s known, is a Romanian thief, and his disintegrating relationship with his psychopathic former apprentice Sikes grows ever more fraught as Twist’s love for Red – that’s Nancy to you – develops.
At the end of it, you wonder why Grass doesn’t just go the whole hog and invent his own world and characters and be done with it, but I kind of have that opinion about any reimagining. I guess there’s life in the light-fingered urchin yet.
And, wait, a check on imdb tells us there’s a Twist movie in development. Yeah, drum ‘n’ bass loops, definitely.
Many thanks to Orion for the review copy.