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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Clerkenwell Tales

Peter Ackroyd

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To purchase The Clerkenwell Tales

Title: The Clerkenwell Tales
Author: Peter Ackroyd
Genre: Novel
Written: 2003
Length: 213 pages
Availability: The Clerkenwell Tales - US
The Clerkenwell Tales - UK
The Clerkenwell Tales - Canada
Le complot de Dominus - France
Die Clerkenwell-Erzählungen - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

B : lots of fine pieces, somewhat disappointing whole

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor . 21/9/2004 Ron Charles
Daily Telegraph A 4/8/2003 Tom Payne
FAZ . 4/10/2004 Marion Löhndorf
The Guardian . 16/8/2003 Phil Baker
Independent on Sunday A 3/8/2003 Christopher Fowler
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 13/11/2004 Thomas Leuchtenmüller
New Statesman B 11/8/2003 Hugo Barnacle
The NY Times Book Rev. B 31/10/2004 Michael Pye
The Observer . 10/8/2003 Will Hammond
The Spectator . 9/8/2003 Sebastian Smee
TLS . 1/8/2003 Stephen Abell

  Review Consensus:

  Not quite a consensus, but many don't think it's entirely a success

  From the Reviews:
  • "(G)ripping (.....) The mystery builds up like a mosaic whose secret pattern the artist knows but won't tell till we can finally see it ourselves in the last pages." - Ron Charles, Christian Science Monitor

  • "The miracle is that Ackroyd pulls this kind of thing off without seeming to anachronise. This isn't an exercise in saying, 'twas ever thus, and so we end up learning things. (...) (A) pacy novel brimming with Ackroyd's imaginative use of scholarship.(...) This is more than a reworking of earlier material, be it Chaucer's or his own. Ackroyd is clearly out to impress, and it's worked." - Tom Payne, Daily Telegraph

  • "Doch so sehr der Text es versteht, Einzelbilder zum Funkeln zu bringen, so wenig gelingt es ihm, den Gesamttext in Bewegung zu versetzen. Indem Ackroyd Chaucers Figuren kapitelweise einzeln durchnimmt, wird die Erzählung zigfach ge- aber auch unterbrochen, ohne sich nennenswert von der Stelle zu bewegen." - Marion Löhndorf, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Period detail is one of Ackroyd's strong suits, and if he says a particular tree stood on a particular corner you tend to believe him. There is some interesting material on medieval law (...), and all kinds of idiosyncratic odds and ends" - Phil Baker, The Guardian

  • "Ackroyd's love of the arcane would set a stumbling block for some readers, one imagines, if it were not for the verve and tumult of his language. (...) Such detailing is as exquisite as the corners of old paintings, as one would expect from Ackroyd, with the city's sights, smells, colours and sounds carefully recreated; but what surprises most is the rumbustious pacing. (...) In his previous novels (...) the thriller aspect has come a close second to the atmosphere, but here the pitch is perfect." - Christopher Fowler, Independent

  • "Ackroyd is careful not to encourage sober reflection. The atmosphere of intrigue and the superabundance of period detail tend to conceal the fact that the story never begins to make the remotest kind of sense." - Hugo Barnacle, New Statesman

  • "All this has tremendous energy and sometimes demonstrates brilliant manipulative skills -- and so calls to mind Ackroyd's predecessor, Charles Dickens. (...) Dickens was obviously sentimental; Ackroyd is obviously clever. Perhaps that's why, for all the lovely colors in this book and its brisk pace, it still rings rather hollow -- a gifted writer's five-finger exercise, a trifle to occupy him while he waits for something that he truly cares to write." - Michael Pye, The New York Times Book Review

  • "This is all well and good. But once we have submerged ourselves in the muck of late fourteenth-century London, tuned our ear to the characters' tendency to speak in proverbs, and witnessed the quotidian violence that accompanies a trip to the pub, we may wonder why we have done it. The Clerkenwell Tales seems to have all the characteristics of a good novel, apart from a recognisable purpose. It is not quite a novel, and it is not quite a history. It is as if Ackroyd has written it because he can." - Will Hammond, The Observer

  • "Ackroyd has obviously risen to the challenge of making the attendant prose as medieval as possible and has structured his risky bid for authenticity in three noticeable ways. (...) The dialogue provides the most telling example of Ackroyd's own imaginative blocked drain -- evidence that a concerted attempt to capture the sociolect of an age can easily become bogged down in a meaningless rendering of historicized catchphrases and slogans. Many of the conversations are unconvincingly structured as stichomythic exchanges, stumbling under the weight of too much content" - Stephen Abell, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Clerkenwell Tales is set in Chaucerian times, and Chaucer is an obvious influence on the work. Ackroyd writes in prose, but from the title to the presentation (short chapters, each focussed on one of the characters) to the characters themselves, there's extensive borrowing from Chaucer's own Canterbury Tales.
       The major political events that dominate the book are the struggle for the English throne between Richard II and Henry of Bolingbroke (then Henry IV). There's also a religious conspiracy, a shadowy group of 'predestined men' wreaking a bit of havoc by setting off explosions and burning down some churches in following their own perverted path to the true faith. (Another religious group, the Lollers, isn't quite as sinister but winds up getting most of the blame.) And there's Sister Clarice, raised in the House of Mary convent in Clerkenwell, who doesn't seem all right in the head, but has an uncanny sense of the future and personal destinies.
       The Clerkenwell Tales is a messy book. The main threads -- the doings of the predestined ones, the battle for the throne, Clarice -- run through it prominently enough, but in constantly moving perspectives (there are twenty-two different 'tales') almost none of the stories or characters are really given an opportunity to come into their own.
       What Ackroyd focuses on -- and what he does very well -- is revel in detail. The London of those times -- noisy, smelly, cut-throat -- is vibrantly alive. But this strength of the book is also its weakness, Ackroyd overwhelming with period-detail, many of the conversations (often employing expressions of the day) seemingly presented merely so Ackroyd can introduce more fun and odd titbits of the times.
       The book closes with 'The Author's Tale', which consists entirely of the endnotes, twenty-one glosses of varying interest (some seem completely pointless) -- a fitting enough end for this particular book, offering, in miniature form, the frustrations of the larger whole.
       There are tantalizing bits throughout -- good stories (and plots), interesting characters --, but it's too sprawling, and too thinly spread. The Clerkenwell Tales is entertaining enough, but one is left with the feeling that it could have been considerably more.

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The Clerkenwell Tales: Reviews: Peter Ackroyd: Other books by Peter Ackroyd under review: Also of interest:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction

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About the Author:

       English author Peter Ackroyd was born in 1949. He has written numerous novels and several literary biographies.

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