Being such a huge David Bowie fan, you can imagine that I jumped at once at the chance to join the virtual book club initiated by his son Duncan Jones. January’s read was Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd and what an interesting experience that was!
I struggled initially with the Samuel Pepys style and orthography in the 17th century timeline (although I enjoyed the diaries of Pepys and Evelyn in my late teens). I certainly preferred the 20th century timeline, perhaps because it felt like a more straightforward crime investigation. But of course it is nothing of the sort. How to describe the plot? In the late 17th century (or perhaps early 18th), Nicholas Dyer is an architect working with Sir Christoper Wren to rebuild London’s churches after the Great Fire. He seems to believe in pagan practices that a durable church building requires a human sacrifice (see the Ballad of Mesterul Manole in Romanian folklore (and similar to legends in all parts of the Balkans). Except that the folklore versions imply that nothing of artistic merit that is lasting and unique can be built without the creator’s self-sacrifice, while Dyer seems more eager to sacrifice other people, usually vagrants he finds on the streets of London. In the 20th century timeline, Nicholas Hawksmoor is a detective who is investigating some serial killings on the site of Dyer’s churches in London’s East End.
Past and present seem to brush against each other. Names, characters, places, events are mirrored, sometimes in unexpected ways, in both narratives, but it takes a very attentive reader to keep precise track of the similarities and differences. Certain themes are handled obsessively in both timelines: dust, shadows and time (running out of time, in particular). London appears as a sulphurous, sinister city, harbouring all sorts of evil thoughts and deeds, riddled with real and metaphorical plagues.
Certain streets or patches of ground provoked a malevolence which generally seemed to be quite without motive.
And for a moment Hawksmoor saw his job as that of rubbing away the grease and detritus which obscured the real picture of the world in the way that a blackened church must be cleaned before the true texture of its stone can be seen.
This is a multi-layered work and therefore open to many interpretations, but one aspect which stood out for me was the struggle between rationality (Sir Christopher Wren’s ordered, mathematical world – and that of Hawksmoor’s assistant Dyer) and irrational urges, impulses or dark passions of the architect Dyer and Hawksmoor himself. As someone who prides herself on being a rational creature of the Enlightenment rather than of dark medieval obscurantism, yet I keep demanding a pathos to go with all the logos, a heartbeat to go with all the analysis, I somehow felt stuck in the middle. But perhaps that’s the point: that these opposing forces exist in most of us. A fascinating read, but a bit exhausting, I have to admit.
I began to wonder if that was the reason why it’s been out of print: that maybe the patience and close attention required for such experimental fiction has fallen out of fashion. In my student days in the 1990s this would have been precisely what would have attracted me to this book: that feeling of co-exploration, of being made to work for your enjoyment. Perhaps true crime podcasts have replaced literary structural wizardry and the detective work required for piecing together clues finds its outlet elsewhere.