Friday, November 19, 2010

Hawksmoor – Peter Ackroyd

This book came with a weight of expectation attached to it – one of the Penguin decades series, the Scottish one loves it, Will Self gave it a good write up, and I’ve been meaning to read it for years because of the architecture connection. On the other hand it is that bookish beast – something written by a contemporary man – that I tend to avoid.

Both the Scottish one and Will Self (care of the introduction, we’re not acquainted) told me that this was a dark and frightening book so what with the dark and scary weather and a train journey down to London to get through I thought what the hell now’s the time. I wasn’t scared which has disappointed me a bit, I was confused (but that’s hardly unusual) and I didn’t actually dislike the book in any way, but nor am I feeling any particular passion for it.

The confusion came with the plot which goes round and round in circles, the same things happening to different, or possibly the same people, at different, or possibly the same times. A notebook might have helped (okay would definitely have helped) because there are certainly things I’ve missed which might have been significant. Of course they might have been quite insignificant and just things that happen but that doesn’t feel like Ackroyd’s world.

The Hawksmoor of the title is a present day detective investigating a series of child murders. The bodies are turning up by churches – churches built in real history by Nicholas Hawksmoor, but in ‘Hawksmoor’ built by Nicholas Dyer (who’s living the real Hawksmoor’s life and who has a mysterious link with the modern Hawksmoor). Dyer’s system of architecture favours the arcane and shadowy; his buildings demand sacrifices – generally a child...

This felt like a very masculine book to me, not many women, lots of action, not so much introspection, and a lot of visceral detail. I was fascinated by the repetition and the way Ackroyd plays around with ideas of time and reality but for the most part I just didn’t click with this book. In the end I want a character I can empathise with even if I don’t particularly like them and in this case I couldn’t find that character in either Dyer or Hawksmoor. I can’t shake the feeling that this is a deficiency on my part and at the very least I should have been a bit more horrified by ‘Hawksmoor’, but to me it felt like little more than an academic exercise with more style than substance.


  1. Thanks for the review. Ive just finished the 70s of this set and am getting the 50s ones for christmas so I'm sure I'll eventually get around to reading this one too.

  2. Jessica, that sounds like a great project. How did you get on with the Angela Carter? (or is that another 80's one?) I was baffled by that as well though I enjoyed her writing more.

  3. Excellent review - thank you for identifying precisely why I found the book rather repellent when I read it years ago (& I'm a long-time fan of Peter Ackroyd). It IS impossible to empathise; 'visceral' is exactly the right word, and it is extremely difficult to accept the conceit of the real Hawksmoor not being who he was/is without losing patience entirely!