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.
The end of January was one of those weeks when all you want to do is hide under the duvet. After the relief on Monday of learning that I wasn’t going to be out of a job, came the shock of learning which of my colleagues would not be so lucky. There isn’t any good way to tell someone they are being made redundant. It doesn’t matter how rationale the explanation, there’s still that feeling of ‘why me?’. And for the ones left behind, a touch of guilt that they somehow survived, and their friend didn’t.
With all of that going on, I really couldn’t summon up a load of enthusiasm for reading or blogging. It didn’t help that one of the books I’m reading has turned out to be a disappointment. I chose Peter Ackroyd’s Clerkenwell Tales to represent England in my Reading along the Prime Meridian challenge on the basis that it’s set in London which is where the Prime Meridian is deemed to begin. I also knew from reading Hawskmoor many years ago that Ackroyd is very skilled at conveying the spirit and history of the city.
But it’s turned out to be not as riveting as I’d hoped. It’s great at conjuring up the smells and atmosphere of the place towards the end of the fourteenth century and conveying details about the attitudes of its citizens. It’s meant to be about a plot to destabilise the country which is already in crisis with the threat of civil war, a story told in fragments by multiple participants. The character list is the same as that found in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales except that Ackroyd’s figures never really go anywhere. Problem is that this device means we don’t really get to know any character in depth so its hard to feel engaged with them. I’ll finish it (it’s not a very long book) and hope that the other Ackroyd I plan to read – English Voices – is a more rewarding experience.
In other news……
I did manage to finish A S Byatt’s Possession well ahead of the Book Club meeting middle of this month so that gives me plenty of time to think of some discussion topics. I’m confident we’re going to get some very mixed reactions to the book. You can find my thoughts in the review I posted.