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Natheless, even if Middle English left you in a muddle or you never studied it at all, you'll be fascinated by Peter Ackroyd's gripping new mystery, "The Clerkenwell Tales." Known primarily for his masterly, 800-page study of London, Ackroyd has now written a book that's nominally fiction and strikingly brief. (Look for his equally efficient biography of Chaucer in January.) The story opens in 1399 at the House of Mary, a convent in Clerkenwell, London. With a nod to Chaucer, Ackroyd moves through 22 short tales, each named for a different character, some familiar from that legendary pilgrimage. (The Wife of Bath steals the show, again.) In this case, though, all the tales contribute to the same developing story about a crisis in London, and they're told about - not by - their title characters. The nun's prescient ravings play right into the rebellious plans of Bolingbroke's friends in London who want to show how poorly King Richard protects the Church. He's secretly leading a group of radical purists known variously as "the true men," "the foreknown," or "the predestined ones." In the interest of purifying the Church, they begin a campaign of terror in London. Part of Ackroyd's genius here is his ability to capture London at a time when it looks and sounds surreal to us - a fascinating mixture of the familiar and the alien. New ideas about God and man, combined with the Church's crumbling doctrinal control, were leading more and more people to ask troubling, radical questions. In Ackroyd's dramatization, all these arcane theological and political issues come bracingly alive as the plot turns and twists through a murky world of betrayal and fanaticism.
It is not surprising that Ackroyd did not pull it off (that is, if one judges this on the merits as a novel rather than a work of history). As an experiment in historical fiction, however, the Clerkenwell Tales might be judged more kindly.
I understand that Ackroyd is trying to present a version or a take of The Canterbury Tales. I love Ackroyd's writing, honestly.
I think I would like to go back and re-read this when I have more time to concentrate and can read it quicker and get more of the plot and do a better job at remembering who everyone is!
In this novel, in an attempt to enhance the mood and setting of the work, Mr. Ackroyd has over-salted the text with archaic words and phrases that leave the reader either reaching for water (in this case a dictionary) to ingest it all, or trying to slog through and doing their best to find the nuances which are diminished or buried; and some will simply push the plate aside and reach for something more palatable.
Peter Ackroyd CBE is an English novelist and biographer with a particular interest in the history and culture of London. S. Eliot's Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948), was an early indication of Ackroyd's penchant for creatively exploring and reexamining the works of other London-based writers. Ackroyd has always shown a great interest in the city of London, and one of his best known works, London: The Biography, is an extensive and thorough discussion of London through the ages. His fascination with London literary and artistic figures is also displayed in the sequence of biographies he has produced of Ezra Pound (1980), T. Early in his career, Ackroyd was nominated a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1984 and, as well as producing fiction, biography and other literary works, is also a regular radio and television broadcaster and book critic.