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Review of Hawksmoor

Originally published in 2 parts, on March 9-12, 2004.
Book 7 in my first 52 books challenge.

Part 1:

Author: Peter Ackroyd
Published: 1985
Where got: public library
Genre: mystery, horror

I read this book years ago as part of a college course on modern English literature, but I remember nothing about it. Even now, when I'm almost finished with part one, I still remember nothing about the previous reading, which I guess shows how interested I was in it at the time.

Every other chapter happens in the 18th century and is written in the style of that time, which takes a while to get used to. The other chapters are written in modern English and happen in modern times. The narrative point of view shifts between chapters, from 1st person to 3rd person. These stylistic changes necessitate a shifting of mental gears at the beginning of each chapter and make the book challenging to read.

So far I'm finding it to be a dark and rather menacing narrative. Dyer, the 18th century narrator, appears to be stark raving mad and a satanist to boot. His narrative seems to tie in with the modern chapters, where it appears that people are being murdered in the neighbourhood of churches Dyer has built.

Part two should start giving some explanations - I hope. I hate it when mysteries continue to be mysterious after I've finished reading them.

Part 2:

Finished the book. Now for the review:

As I mentioned before, the narrative is in two totally different styles. The first chapter and every second chapter after that is written in the1st person, 18th century style English. The 1st person narrator is Nicholas Dyer, a character very loosely based on real life English architect Nicholas Hawksmoor. In the book, Ackroyd attributes to Dyer the six churches Hawksmoor is most famous for designing, and the narrative is as much based around the churches as it is around Dyer, inspector Hawksmoor and other characters in the book.

The second chapter and every other chapter following is written in the 3rd person, modern English. In part one of the book these chapters introduce, with great compassion, characters who end up being murdered at the sites of Dyer's churches, in an echo of sacrificial deaths, accidental, by murder or by suicide, that are connected with the building of the churches (in the story). In part two the modern chapters tell the story of inspector Hawksmoor who is investigating the murders, and his increasing frustration over getting nowhere with the cases.

I have to say that while this novel is a masterpiece in many ways, it is not a satisfying read. It has an ending, but no conclusion or resolution, leaving the reader to try to work out happened. The use of 1st person narrative for the insane and evil Dyer and the 3rd person for Hawksmoor, who's closest to being the good guy in the story, serves to make the reader feel compassion for Dyer and indifference towards Hawksmoor. Most of all it underlines how alike they are, their thought processes and frustrations are very similar, like two sides of the same coin.

Hawksmoor should really be read with a map of London at hand, as it will give the reader a better feel for the area in which the story happens. Make that TWO maps, one of the contemporary city and one of 18th century London, as some of the street names have changed. Knowing what the churches in the book look like will help as well - here's a link to a page with pictures of some them.

Another good reference to have at hand for historical detail is Ackroyd's own London: A Biography, but it's not absolutely necessary.

Rating: A dark and morbid narrative, in turns horrifying and puzzling, that should appeal to admirers of gothic literature and murder mysteries. 3 stars for quality, none for satisfaction.

Ackroyd links:
Peter Ackroyd bio and bibliography
Review of Hawksmoor


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