cover image English Music

English Music

Peter Ackroyd. Alfred A. Knopf, $23 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-679-40968-7

Ackroyd's rich imagination and literary inventiveness have never been showcased so deliberately and provocatively as in this impassioned paean to English culture--but not with complete success. Perhaps the book's liability is the tone of lassitude and melancholy that permeates protagonist Tim Harcombe's narrative of his strange life with his healer/magician father during the days following WW I in London. Tim's recollections alternate with third-person accounts of his visions, dreams in which he encounters some of the dead masters of English literature, music and art and enters into their works and worlds. In this fashion, Tim comprehends the intellectual heritage that binds Britons through the centuries, and also the cyclical nature of human existence, the inheritance of family characteristics from generation to generation. Ackroyd's rendering of Tim's fugue states ranges from the charming and whimsical to the heavily didactic. In the best of them, he captures the surreal quality of dreams while cleverly adopting the style of the writers to whom he pays homage: Dickens, Blake (he has written biographies of both), Lewis Carroll, A. Conan Doyle. In other cases, where he tries to convey the essential characteristic of music (Henry Purcell) or of art (Hogarth, Gainsborough, Constable) the conceit can wear thin. The artifice of the plot device--Tim must fall into his trances at regular intervals--becomes too predietable, and the constant repetition of the theme of cultural heritage somewhat overwrought. Yet the novel remains intriguing, and certainly enlightening. Illustrations. (Oct.)