Book Look - Hawksmoor, by Peter Ackroyd

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A couple of recommendations if you chance upon this review before attempting the book. (1) if you’ve picked this up because you love a good, literary murder mystery, you may wish to reconsider; though murders occur, and there’s a detective intent upon solving them, you’ll find almost every other traditional mystery trope – clues, motives, suspects, an investigation, a denoument – unsettlingly absent here. (2) Fully half the book is written utilizing 17th century literary conventions (complete with period-appropriate erratic spelling, punctuation, and grammar) – if this doesn’t appeal to you, you’ve another reason to move on. (3) Though I tend to avoid spoilers, in this case you may actually want to start off by reading one or more of the many literary essays devoted to this book, so that you don’t waste three quarters of the book (as I did) trying desperately to make sense of incidents that, it turns out, aren’t necessarily meant to make sense – at least not in any traditional, logical way.

For Hawksmoor is, according to people smarter than me, a work of “postmodern” literature – a deliberate effort on the part of Ackroyd, the novel’s erudite author, to pervert narrative conventions, genre, character development – even chronological time. In the process, he’s created an uneven tale consisting of two parallel narratives, one of them a great deal more fully-realized and engaging than the other.

The more engaging narrative, set in late 17th century London, tells the tale of Nicholas Dyer, an architect in charge of building a series of major churches throughout the city and also, secretly, a worshipper of ancient, fearful gods who, among other things, require that each of his churches be consecrated by a human sacrifice. His professional and philosophical rival is Sir Christopher Wren, a fellow architect who, in contrast, is a champion of the Age of Reason, intent upon displacing the old gods and setting new ones – science and logic - in their place. This juxtaposition allows Ackroyd to explore both these forces – and especially the opposition between them – at some length, resulting in a series of richly imagined, often disturbing scenes and set-pieces. (Seriously, some of the scenes are presented in the form of miniature plays – more postmodern experimentation, I presume, but it works.)

Perhaps because these chapters are so rich, dark, and disturbing, the half of the narrative set in (more or less) modern-day London, featuring Det. Hawksmoor and his attempts to solve a series of murders at churches designed by Dyer, can’t help but pale in comparison. Dyer’s gradual descent into madness is satisfyingly convincing and creepy; Hawksmoors’, alas, is merely tedious.

Before too long you begin to notice that the two narratives are tied together by more than Dyer’s churches (which, by the way, are laid out in the form of a pentagon, along ancient “lay lines” of power); increasingly, incidents in the lives of Hawksmoor and Dyer parallel/intersect, the intent of which could be interpreted in any number of ways. My own interpretation is that Ackroyd means us to understand that the conflict between reason and chaos, though less visible beneath our 20th century veneer of reason, continues unabated, particularly at sites (like Dyer’s churches) where ancient evils have long festered and concentrated. This interpretation is supported, I believe, by the parallels that Ackroyd draws between his London of 1690 and his London of today – despite the passage of years, the two Londons are eerily similar, from the songs the urchins sing in the streets to the cries of the vendors selling their wares, from buildings perched uneasily upon the foundations of structures dating back to prehistory to the timeless cruelty and bullying of children, from streets still named after their ancient antecedents to the sad, desperate lives of the beggars, whores and madmen who exist at the fringes of humanity.

A provocative thesis, and when combined with Ackroyd’s gift for authentic period detail and eerie narrative, enough for me to recommend this as a worthwhile read, even if “postmodern” isn’t ordinarily my cup of tea.