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You know, back when I started this journal I had intended to record my thoughts on every book I read. Yeah, sure! Service has been, shall we say, intermittent over the last few months because I’ve been reading a lot of books for review (I don’t like going public with something that is going to be published), or for articles (in some ways, reading for research doesn’t feel like reading), or for my history (ditto), or, more often, because I simply haven’t had the time (or the inclination) to write them up. Then, every so often, I come over all enthusiastic and think I should start writing up books all over again. Heaven knows how long this new enthusiasm will last (days? seconds? I’m taking bets) but I thought I’d start with Peter Ackroyd’s new novel (Chatto & Windus, 2004) which I’ve just finished.

I’ve been a fan of Ackroyd’s work since Hawksmoor, but it has to be admitted that since he got started on his superb biographies (Dickens, London) his fictions have become not only thinner as books but more insubstantial as works of literature (The Plato Papers?!?). The Lambs of London, his take on that curious couple, Charles and Mary Lamb, and their friend William Ireland who forged Shakespeare’s play Vortigern, has been hailed as a return to form, some have even said it’s his best novel since Chatterton. Well, I happen to rate English Music as better than Chatterton, (though I agree Chatterton is among the handful of his best novels); and The Lambs of London is distinctly better than any of his novels since, probably, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, but let us not think therefore that this is a real return to form.

Like Chatterton it is a novel about forgery and fakery, and contains many sly games with the idea of deceit and delusion. But where the earlier novel was clearly self-directed, a work that was all about the way Ackroyd himself put on other voices in his best work, this is essentially mild by comparison. A gentle comment about how clever and amusing it all is, rather than a fierce engagement with what it is to take on the voice of other writers. And where the death of Chatterton became part of the whole questioning of what is truth, what is fake; here the tragic finale, Mary Lamb’s murder of her mother and incarceration in a home for the insane, becomes just a neat and unironic tying-off of one stand of the story. What’s more, the two central characters, Charles and Mary Lamb, seem somewhat underdeveloped as characters, Charles in particular, who slips out of the limelight about half way through the book and never really comes back into focus after that. William Ireland, on the other hand, is one of the best realised characters Ackroyd has developed for a very long time, vivid, sympathetic, pitiful and real.

The thing I’ve noticed about Ackroyd’s fiction of late is that it has become the work of an historian. His literary recreations of earlier times have always been very carefully constructed, an elaboration of detail, an attention to the streets and the sights and the smells that might bring the period to vivid life. But in his earlier novels this care was overlaid with a vivacious sense of fictional creation: the linguistic jeu d’esprit of Hawksmoor, the plot convolutions of Chatterton, the novelistic recreations of English Music, the magic of The House of Doctor Dee. Now, that fictional fun has gone and the historical care is centre stage. This novel, like The Clerkenwell Tales before it, is a wonderful evocation of its period, but it has lost the daring, the linguistic risk-taking, the sense of fun that the earlier novels had.

Let’s be fair, this is a good novel, certainly better than Ackroyd’s standard of late, but it is not a great novel.

First published at Livejournal, 13 August 2004.

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