English Music

English Music

by Peter Ackroyd

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
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, Arthur 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 predictable, and the constant repetition of the theme of cultural heritage somewhat overwrought. Yet the novel remains intriguing, and certainly enlightening.

Library Journal
Outside the hall in 1920s London where Timothy Harcombe works nightly with his father, a sign reads, 'Clement Harcombe. Medium and Healer.' But it is Timothy who seems to have the greater power. Periodically falling into dreamlike states, he enters into 'English music' -- here signifying all the great accomplishments of English culture -- where he encounters various literary figures, becomes part of a Gainsborough painting, and is instructed in music by William Byrd. Fearful of his son's gift, the father ships him off to his maternal grandparents in the country. But ultimately Timothy rejoins his father -- for 'everyone belongs somewhere' -- and discovers the true extent of his miraculous powers.

Ackroyd suggests that we all belong to culture. His book is both charming and ambitious, but it is more successful in concept than in execution. --Barbara Hoffert

Product Details

Penguin Group (USA)
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What People are saying about this

T.A. Shippey
Ackroyd is a connoisseur, whose pastiches show not only sharp sight and counterfeiting ability, but also deep love of what he is rewriting. . . . [He is] let down only by his consistently poor grasp of Middle English verb inflections (double First at Cambridge: well, that figures). Still, even that I can forgive him, for remembering, and working in Layamon, the forgotten poet (still not fully edited) of Arley Regis in Worcestershire, Ackroyd lets little slip. He is a great reminder. Reading him, you become conscious of the great wealth of the tradition which normally drifts by us unrecognized.

If the conventional recommendation is to say that, finishing a book, you want to start it again, then Ackroyd has a more selfless effect: finishing English Music, you want to go and dig forgotten books off dusty shelves, look again at Hogarth, find the old record of Purcell. It's an eye-opener. An ear-opener, too.

Verlyn Klinkenborg
[The author's] version of cultural dynamics is at once romantic and conservative, and perhaps not necessarily to be disparaged for being so. But what if you're not just nostalgic about English literature? What if you still feel the real force of Shakespeare or Milton -- or even [{Ernest] Dowson? What if the stuff matters to you? Then I don't think English Music can matter to you, too. . . . The borrowed characters in this novel -- Alice, Christian, Miss Havisham, Albion -- can be only as big as Timothy, after all, and that is not big enough. In English Music, Ackroyd's imitations of Defoe and Blake and Dickens and Malory only remind the reader how wan these imitations really are.

The story of English literature becomes a parlor game through which Timothy -- the hero of what might have been a pretty fair conventional novel--sullenly wanders.

Alison Lurie
In his sixth novel, English Music, the brilliantly quirky British writer Peter Ackroyd combines the two genres that have made his reputation: fiction and literary biography. For his frame story, he returns to the byways of English history that inspired his earlier novels. And in interleaved chapters he reimagines the lives of famous English writers. . . . [{The novel] will please readers who enjoy literary theory and literary puzzles (can you spot the quotations from Langland and Coleridge?). But it should also be welcomed by those who admire the works of Robertson Davies and Charles Williams, which also play upon the power of the creative imagination to discover a supernatural order behind the appearance of this world.

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