The Clerkenwell Tales
(Chatto & Windus, 2003)
These notes originally written 5 January 2006.
I picked this book up from the discount table at a bookstore while visiting Toronto a few months ago. I had read several of Peter Ackroyd’s biographies (of T.S. Eliot and St. Thomas More) and enjoyed them very much, so I thought I would try one of his novels.
The story is set in London in the year 1399, and tracks several secret societies which, in one way or another, are stirring up political and religious unrest in the city. The particular conceit that Ackroyd has adopted is that the characters populating his story parallel those in The Canterbury Tales — thus there is a miller, a knight, a wife of Bath, a reeve, a squire, and so on. There are 22 characters in all, and each of them tells one chapter of the story from his or her own point of view.
This is an inventive narrative device, but it does create certain problems. First, it is a relatively short book, and those are a lot of characters to keep track of. The consequence is that there is little in the way of nuanced characterization — indeed, we hardly get to know some of the characters at all. In this respect it reminded me at times of Umberto Eco’s novels — that is, novels that despite, or perhaps because of, all their cleverness and invention never really come to life as novels.
Second, changing the point of view in every chapter fractures the story in a way that makes it difficult to follow and prevents it from building momentum. I found that I didn’t really get involved in the story until the last few chapters, at which point the various threads of the story began to be pulled together. I’m sure that Ackroyd was aware from the start that the problems would be present; I don’t think his efforts to address them were entirely successful.
Having said that, there are real pleasures to be had here. The shifting perspective of the narration has the advantage of taking us into many different scenes of fourteenth-century London life: the cloister, the church, the physician’s office, the cook’s kitchen. Ackroyd clearly has a feel for the texture and language of London at the time. The book is full of wonderful words (‘hopharlot’ is obviously superior to the modern ‘John’) and phrases (‘The fog is not dispersed with a fan.’) that have passed out of the language. In this sense, I think each chapter could be read for more pleasure than the book as a whole.