Wednesday, May 02, 2012
book review: The Great Fire of London by Peter Ackroyd
Having read some Peter Ackroyd before the technique of overlapping history in different parts of London is not something unfamiliar.
But this was the first time he tried it in his debut novel and this sets up what he later on perfected as a style that would become synonymous with him. A few years ago in his London series on television he explained the ley lines and the way that London seems to hold history like a sponge.
What happened in some parts of the City hundreds of years ago still echoes today and in Ackroyd's world has the power to influence the present.
A film maker plans to make a modern day take on Little Dorrit and starts hunting round the old site of the Marshalsea prison. Other characters - often as bizarre as those that populated Dicken's books - are introduced and a cocktail of doom is mixed slowly as the filming begins.
Although Little Dorrit is a work of fiction there is a passage where a professor with a reputation for Dickens explains that it was a method of portraying reality and the conditions and world that are described in that novel - with the great poverty and the grimness of the debtors prison - existed for real.
Remembering that point is key to the story because in some ways the picture becomes clouded with one woman going to seance and having Little Dorrit visit her. Quite how a fictional character could speak from the dead is a point that blurs the edges.
But blurring the edges is what Ackroyd likes doing and he is control here not just of choosing which parts of the Little Dorrit story to use, much like the film maker in the story, but also of which areas of London will act as the backdrop.
London is a character here with its areas of poverty and neglect coming through into the story as areas that spawn the modern day extreme characters that Dickens would have used. There is Little Arthur who is not quite as likeable as Little Dorrit with his child killing history and Pally his friend who comes across as a simpleton but with a darker side.
As you would expect in a City of extremes along side these people live the normalish as well as the younf bright things that dream of dancing and making films where some of the poor people will make great background extras.
It works as a story but perhaps bringing in the other great London event in the shape of a modern versuion of the Great Fire is slightly unnecessary. It's covered in a couple of paragraphs and feels like it needed more room to breathe as an idea on its own. Otherwise a good read and a reminder that London isn a city of myths and legends where the past touches the future.