Book Review: Confessions of an English Opium-Eater

“Happiness might now be bought for a penny, and carried in the waistcoat-pocket; portable ecstasies might be had corked up in a pint-bottle; and peace of mind could be sent down by the mail…”

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After months of being forced to read ponderous tomes and sophisticated literature, I took one look at the title of this Thomas De Quincy novel and thought yes please. Unfortunately, large parts of it are dull, indecipherable or both…

Thomas De Quincy was an essayist and scholar who also banged a fair bit of opium in his time. His time being the 19th century. This autobiographical essay was serialised in 1821 for the London Magazine. The whole first half of the novel is pretty much just De Quincy detailing how miserable his life was and how goddamn hungry he was the whole time. All the while the language is verbose and difficult. De Quincy himself even admits that he ‘has already extended to an unreasonable length’. Eventually he does get to the good stuff, namely opium, the ingesting of it and the effects thereof.

It is easy to see why De Quincy’s story has persisted. It is full of quotable and memorable lines. At one point he concedes that he had ‘…unfortunately at all times a craving for wine’. A line that you can imagine doing the rounds on social media superimposed over a thoughtful picture of the authors likeness. The occasional priceless jewel doesn’t make up for a haul of fools gold however and as De Quincy admits it is ‘not the opium-eater, but the opium (that) is the true hero of the tale’. Quite.

When De Quincy finally does recount his days of chasing the dragon however, he is sincere and compelling. Both in describing the glorious highs and the devastating lows. Indeed, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater serves as a more elegant companion to classic modern novels like Trainspotting and the work of Hunter S. Thompson. It must be considered though that the former literary work is nowhere near as accessible as the latter. Light reading this is not.


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