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1001 Book Review: Hawksmoor by Ackroyd

Hawksmoor

Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd
First published: 1985
Format: Audiobook narrated by Derek Jacobi
Reviewed by: Jen
Rating: ★★★

In the 18th century Nicholas Dyer, an architect, and secret devil worshiper, is commissioned to build seven London churches. In the 1980s, detective Nicholas Hawksmoor is investigating a series of gruesome murders that took place in the sites of those same seven churches. Hawksmoor alternates between the two time periods and Ackroyd uses different styles to reflect “modern” day language and 18th century language. As the story progresses, readers begin to piece recognize patterns and connections between the two periods.

Nicholas Dyer is loosely based on real life architect Nicholas Hawksmoor (I wish I had known this prior to reading the book – notice the overlapping names of characters) who worked with Sir Christopher Wren (also mentioned in Ackroyd’s book). The real Nicholas Hawksmoor was a free mason who incorporated pagan symbols into his churches and did in fact build the 7 churches mentioned in the book. The Guardian published an interesting piece on Hawksmoor and his churches. Scroll down the bottom of this review to see images of the 7 churches.

Let me begin by saying that audio is the wrong format with which to tackle this book. The book is confusing, the author jumps around between time periods, some names are similar across time periods, and the narrator does not do a good job of distinguishing between voices.

Now on to my review…

For a book that covers “gruesome murders” and includes time traveling (kind of) and devil worshiping, I sure found it boring. It took me about 3 weeks to finish the audiobook (unprecedented for me since I have a combined 2-hour commute to work each day and the book wasn’t that long).

Part of my difficulty was the format since I listened to this book. The writing style is interesting, but at times very dry and overly detailed. When translated into audio format (with a narration that was less than compelling), it became very dull for me. I found myself getting dazed when listening to it and my mind wandered constantly. And because it was such a complex novel (in the sense that you had to pay close attention to details to see the connections), I would loose track of what I was listening to and become completely lost.

Peter Ackryod is perhaps better known for his works of non-fiction. He has a fascination with history and old London. In many ways, this book read like a historical non-fiction text with lots of excruciating detail about the structure of the churches and the layout of the streets. I did not find it to be a novel of strong plot and characters (although it clearly has a central plot) but rather it was a novel of ideas. There are many debates about rationalism vs. spiritualism/anti-intellectualism and I found those debates rather tedious.

I think many people will enjoy this book precisely because of the philosophical and spiritual themes. In fact, it gets lots of 5-star ratings on good reads. Ackryod is a highly intellectual writer. His sentences are highly crafted and formal. It feels like it was written by a historian. This was not my sort of book. It’s not that I don’t enjoy discussions of philosophy, morality, and spirituality in my books, it’s just that I found this particular book to be very dull and dry, with long passages of dialogue about spiritualism vs. rationalism. I also didn’t care about any of the characters and I had little investment in the main story line. On the upside, the ending was clever and I liked how things were connected, although with the audio version I found it hard to follow some of the connections.

I would have given it a 2 star rating for enjoyment but the intelligence and interesting writing style merit an additional star at the very least.

If you decide to read this book, just don’t get the audiobook unless you have insomnia and need a sleep aid.

You can buy it or check it out here:Hawksmoor (Penguin Decades)

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