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The Clerkenwell Tales

Peter Ackroyd

Chatto and Windus / Random House UK

UK Hardback First

ISBN: 1856197069

228 Pages; £15.99

Date Reviewed: 20th October 2003

Reviewed by: Serena Trowbridge © 2003



General Fiction


The British public seems endlessly fascinated with Chaucer at the moment, and this novel will serve to fan the flames of enthusiasm. Ackroyd's novel of fourteenth-century London covers life in all its guises, and is a tribute to The Canterbury Tales, which is evident not only in the title but in that the chapters are headed "The Man of Law's Tale", "The Wife of Bath's Tale" etc, and the notes at the end, useful but thankfully unobtrusive, are entitled "The Author's Tale", thus dispensing with editorial apparatus which would be distracting in a complicated novel of this kind. The piecemeal nature of this novel is appropriate to post-modern society, giving the reader the story in bite-size chunks, but in a way that is more akin to a detective story than a soap opera. The Canterbury Tales was way ahead of its time, and Ackroyd utilizes this method well.

The Clerkenwell Tales deals with London in a time that seems quite alien to us, where the church rules and rumour and superstition cause havoc. There are suspicions about of terrorist attacks on a variety of churches, which seem to be religious attacks but turn out to be more politically motivated. Respected statesmen are using young fanatics as pawns in a deadly game, and a mad woman, Sister Clarice of the Clerkenwell convent, predicts doom and terror, stirring up hatred and fear. Perhaps not so alien times then? Ackroyd paints a vivid picture of London of the time, with meticulous attention to detail, conjuring up the sights, sounds and smells of medieval London, but he then cleverly subverts the notion of the historical novel by turning ideas on their head and evoking the parallels between those uncertain times and our own. The minutiae of the law and religious practices of the time are all here, and in their very unlikeliness we can see the impracticality of the laws that bind the modern world.

The scene is set with the first tale, The Clerkenwell Tale, where we are introduced to Sister Clarice and her environment, and is then pieced together by numerous other tales. The giant jigsaw that ensues is a fascinating and complex novel. Aackroyd remains true to Chaucer's language as well as his concept, using medieval notions of language, descriptive, vivid and colouful as well as alliterative, which not only evokes the spirit of the period but is useful for disguising the words that Victorian scholars chose to leave out of their translations, considering them unsuitable for the general public.

Ackroyd has a history of writing about London; not only have several of his novels to date been set in London, but in London and Albion he has examined the history of London and what it was like to live in London throughout the centuries. This novel is Ackroyd putting this into practice, and it works extremely well, to the extent that London is, in many ways, the central protagonist of this novel, with the plots and subplots taking a back seat to the city. This is aided by the diffraction of narration in the novel; the tale is told from the viewpoint of a variety of characters; the Wife of Bath, who keeps a brothel, the Man of Law, who tries various felons, and the Prioress, who oversees the convent in which Sister Clarice resides. There is no one character; all are equal here, as in the sight of God, and all have a chance to tell their tale. Ackroyd has built a picture of medieval life in London, using the building blocks of individual lives, from the high to the low, and it is rich, strange, irresistible reading, and an appropriate tribute to Chaucer's work.