Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Hawksmoor - Peter Ackroyd

(Ha! Bet you never thought you'd see one of these again!)

This book doesn't belong to me. Matthew Farrer clobbered me with it, and I've never been one to say no. It was given to him by Dan Abnett, in return for a David Malouf book. I've only read one Malouf, but I think Matthew got the better deal.

He intrigued me initally by outlining it as being about the churchs of London, and the incredible symbology that went into their construction. That perked my ears. My favourite chapter in From Hell involves Sir Gull and his driver seemingly randomly trotting around London, viewing churches while Gull delivers something of a lecture on their history. It was fascinating, and sinister.

But perhaps I didn't time my reading of this as best I could. I started reading this book the same time I started work. Instead of being able to give it the hours of attention that I like to languish on books, it was read in bursts and fits; on train stations, in lunch breaks, with a suddenly shifted sleeping pattern that killed my ability to concentrate, until everything spiralled together, and I became as adrift as the characters in the book itself.

Ackroyd is a remarkably talented writer. He exerted a control over his voice that I learned a lot from. The book slips back and forth between two timelines; that of Nicholas Dyer, the architecth who designed and built the churches, full of a purpose I'm sure their majesties would not approve of, and Hawksmoor, in our present day, investigating strange murders occurring in the churches.

It began with Dyer, and at first I was taken aback. His voice, the writing, was heavily 'olde worlde'. I'm not sure that's the best way to put it, but it stemmed from a time when spelling differed from sentence to sentence, and captials went where ever they wished. It was thick, full of colour, and took some effort to read. It put me in mind of my story 'Bitter Elsie Mae' which was written in a thick dialect that tripped a lot of people up as well. One trick I was told was to lay it on in the beginning, and then back off slowly. People will remember the dialect, and hear it even if it isn't there. Either I became used to Dyer's voice, or Ackroyd pulled the same trick.

Then came Hawksmoor, and Ackroyd did something interesting with him. Although Hawksmoor's line could have been written in our current and familiar dialogue, it wasn't. There was no dialect as Dyer had, but turns of phrase, the voice, and mannerisms were such that I never lost contact with the century that Dyer lived in. I wasn't shaken out by modern devices or slang, and occasionally, as the story lines seemed to refect and tangle themselves across time, I lost track of what time I was in, and wondered when I was in the story. (Perhaps that was exhaustion.) Given that one of the themes of the book was the spanning and compressing of time, it felt right. Appropriate. A very complex spell.

But while I understood Dyer, I don't think I ever truly got a handle on Hawksmoor. (Did he have a handle on himself?) He seemed a creature entirely of the present. I knew nothing of his origins, where he had come from, what path his life had trod - he existed only for the duration of the book, with no sense of history or future to his being. As he unpeeled the murders and progressed towards some inevitable conclusion, he was a stranger, as he was to the people in his life. When at last (SPOILER) he entered the church, and found the tramp, and all infinity spun around him, I can't say I had the slightest idea what was going on. From Dyer's perspective, I understood he was successful. From Hawksmoor's...

Perhaps the problems stems from the simple fact that I don't know why Hawksmoor. Perhaps it was something I missed, but I don't know why Hawksmoor had this fate, and not another.

I felt I learned a lot from this book, and although I was unable to give it the full concentration I think it required, I enjoyed it. One of those books that sits slightly sideways of everything else, one that challenged me and still sits in my head, daring me to sort it out.

Verdict: Well worth the time. But yes, have something of a concentration span when you begin. Writers will learn a lot. And I apolosise for mistakes/typos. (Matthew, need your postal address.)


  1. Anonymous25/9/05 05:49

    I agree with you about it needing concentration - enjoyable as the opening was, my current daily routines make it hard to really set aside the time to bore into a book like that. It was no coincidence that I did finish it on a visit to Perth - started it on the multi-hour plane trip there, read it each evening in the hotel and finished it just as we were starting our descent into Canberra on the way home :)

    (And although the tone did need some work at the beginning, I noticed that in the middle of the book when the modern bits started appearing, my first reaction to losing Dyer's voice was one of disappointment, and I was hurrying through the Howksmoor chapters to try and get back to it.)

    I know what you mean about the lack of a handle on the Hawksmoor character and the ambivalent ending, but I'm wondering if that odd, cipherlike quality to Hawksmoor was intentional? That was my reading of it: that Dyer's will was so strong and his works so powerful that anyone who got swept up in the turbulence he sent down Time was reduced to a ghost of themselves, playing out a pale echo of Dyer's own life and actions.

    What do you think?

  2. Hello 3-lobed.....who IS that under there?

    And I don't really know. For a while, I was entertaining the thought that Hawksmoor WAS Dyer, inadvertantly answering his own questions...but that didn't pan. There was such reflection between the two time streams that I kept trying to find his reflection in Dyer's time, but there isn't one. I suppose the equivilant WAS Dyer, except they play vastly different roles. Dyer is in control, forcing action to take place, where as Hawksmoor can only react, has no control over anything.

    He can't be Dyer, because Dyer never ended....but still, I can't find that link, any link that would push him into Dyer's confusion of time, to mimic Dyer's life.

    Until I find that link, I don't think I'll fully grasp the book.