THE CLERKENWELL TALES
Ackroyd (The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde ; Hawksmoor ; etc.) brings late medieval London to life in this latest of his fascinating historical novels. Working with a cast of characters drawn from The Canterbury Tales , Ackroyd deploys his usual meticulous research to reconstruct the background of Chaucer's England in a prose idiom congenial to modern readers. The thriller plot concerns a visionary nun, a sect of violent religious heretics and a shadowy group of power brokers trying to orchestrate the ouster of King Richard II by Henry Bolingbroke. But the rather creaky conspiracy narrative, supposedly based in fact, is just a peg on which to hang a panorama of 14th-century life that takes in the cathedrals, cloisters, brothels, taverns and law courts while instructing readers on all things medieval, from medicine (dove droppings applied to the feet is the recommended cure for insomnia) to fast food (at street stands, roast finches can be had two for a penny). It's a society where elaborate courtesy balances gross indecency, pious ritual shades into sadomasochistic fetish, reflexive orthodoxy is troubled by new philosophies from the universities, corrupt and worldly churchmen contend with anti-clerical revolutionaries and science struggles to be born from a morass of superstition, alchemy and astrology. The characters seem both secure within and frustrated by the confines and mysteries of their narrow worldview and are badly in need of a renaissance. Ackroyd's brilliant evocation of their ideology and psychology lets us recognize the traces of our own time in this archaic past. Agent, Giles Gordon at Curtis Brown Group Ltd. (Sept.)
Forecast: Readers of history as well as fiction will be drawn to this city portrait by the bestselling author of London: The Biography.