There are times when I see the blurbs on cover of a book I’ve just finished and wonder if I’d been reading an entirely different book. And so it was with Peter Ackroyd’s The Clerkenwell Tales; a book that seemed to have all the elements of a good read but proved to be — if not a dud exactly — a big disappointment.
I chose this novel to represent England in my Reading along the Prime Meridian challenge. It’s set in the heart of London in 1399 which was a tumultuous year in English history. King Richard II, a staunch advocate of the divine right of kings to rule, has his throne threatened by a revolutionary army led by Henry Bolingbroke. Bolingbroke is not the only one who wants to overthrow the King. Dominus, a clandestine group of high-powered officials that seems to be in league with an apocalyptic religious sect is similarly intent on causing mayhem. The atmosphere of fear and anxiety is exacerbated by a nun whose prophesies of Richard’s demise are unleashed on a superstitious public.
Murder, arson, conspiracy. With a plot like that, how can a book fail especially when written by an author with a tremendous skill with period detail? Ackroyd doesn’t disappoint in that respect. His descriptions of daily life, of meals and mystery plays, of footwear and headwear, of tooth sellers and medical potions turn the past into a fascinating though smelly present. Next time I’m feeling ill, I won’t bother my local GP, I’ll just follow one of the cures from the leech featured in Ackroyd’s book.
‘he was much discomforted by her heaviness of stomach and suggested she mix the grease of a boar and the grease of a rat, the grease of a horse and the grease of a badger’s, souse the concoction in vinegar, add sage and then put it upon her belly.
The problem with this book is the way Ackroyd chooses to tell his story. Each of his chapters is named after a character from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Each of these characters has only partial knowledge of the plots and intrigues so what the reader experiences is a gradual revelation of the story. It’s a clever idea, almost akin to the way witnesses in a trial contribute to the jury’s understanding of the whole picture, but since none of the characters enters the story for more than a few pages it’s difficult to get know them in anything more than a superficial way. It’s such a shame because some of them have a lot of promise that is just bursting to be fully realised. But it never does.