It is a fascinating conceit. Each chapter is about a character who can be described as one of the characters in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales; thus we encounter a Wife of Bath (who is a madame so named because she runs a bath-house), a Miller, a Physician etc. But the tale is set in 1399 to the backdrop of the deposition of Richard II by Henry Bolingbroke. At this time (and Ackroyd tells this as if it were historical fact, and so convincingly that I believe him) a group of heretics who believed in predestination were conspiring with a shadowy Freemason-like organisation known as Dominus to create terrorist outrages (including bombing churches) in order to destabilise society. Somehow Ackroyd weaves these tales together with what purport to be historical murders to make a thriller worthy of the Da Vinci code. Where this novel excels, however, is the incredible detail of the setting. The language, the diet, the smells, the noise, the superstitions, the characters, the geography, the buildings, the laws, the customs of old London are meticulously described. In terms of verisimilitude this is a tour de force.
But there are too many characters, not only the 22 characters conforming to Chaucer's characters but many others too. I got so lost about who was who. And the price of the detailed period accuracy was that I could relate to few of the characters. Then again, much as I enjoyed learning about old London, the exhaustive detail was exhausting; sometimes there can be too much research. Becuase of these burdens placed upon me I failed to enjoy reading it as a novel. It was like one of those intricate and rapid Chopin compositions which you can admire for their cleverness and marvel at the musician's dexterity but which don't really speak to your soul.
It did contain many brilliant moments of which these are representative:
- "It was as if he had calculated how many words would lead him through this life, and was determined not to exceed that number." (C 2)
- "It was the smell of humankind, and those who lived in the city had become accustomed to it." (C 2)
- "His hand was moving quickly, as if he were shaking invisible dice." (C 4)
- "It was point and counterpoint taken out of a songbook of smell." (C 16)
- "God may send a man good meat, but the devil may send an evil cook to destroy it." (C 16)
An impressive work of writing. March 2020; 206 pages
Books by Peter Ackroyd reviewed in this blog:
- The Clerkenwell Tales
- The House of Doctor Dee
- The Lambs of London
- Milton in America
- The Fall of Troy