cover image Chatterton


Peter Ackroyd. Grove/Atlantic, $17.95 (234pp) ISBN 978-0-8021-0041-2

With this inventive, larky novel, British author Ackroyd's (Hawksmoor) reputation here should be enhanced. Though the characters at first seem to be excessively eccentric, Dickensian to a fault, eventually they become credible as an ingenious plot fuses their lives. Revolving around the eponymous English poet who committed suicide in 1770 when he was 18, the story begins in modern-day London where another impoverished poet, Charles Wynchwood, discovers a painting that appears to depict Chatterton at an age older than he was when he died. Intrigued, Charles travels to Bristol, Chatterton's birthplace, where he acquires a manuscript that suggests that Chatterton faked his own death and continued to write poetry that was attributed to Cowper, Grey and Blake, among others. Meanwhile, elderly novelist Harriet Scrope employs Charles to help her write her memoirs, which she hopes will not reveal the fact that her novels have all been plagiarized from obscure authors. Simultaneously, the owners of an art gallery where Charles's wife Vivien works are made aware that paintings they have sold are actually fakes. As Charles's life begins more and more to resemble Chatterton's, whom we meet in flashback, Ackroyd unrolls further surprises, capturing the reader in a spiraling series of events, all of which relate to the nature of truth and reality, and the role of art in assuring immortality. Manifestly clever, darkly humorous (although sometimes overdone: the poet Charles eats the pages of books), increasingly suspenseful, sometimes lyrical (as befits its subject), cunningly complex, this eminently satisfying tale has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. (January 28)