Temporal Dissolution in Hawksmoor’s London

To get back in the swing of writing blog posts, I’m going to try sharing some quick thoughts on the books that I’ve read recently. In the next week or so, I’ll talk about Mapping the Interior by Stephen Graham Jones, The Ark Sakura by Kobo Abe, Days Between Stations by Steven Erikson, and a few other things I’ve read since I finished my PhD this past summer. But today I want to talk about Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd.Yes, I bought into Duncan Jones’s homage to his father, David Bowie, in the form of a mass reading group. Actually, I bought the book because I found it at a used book store in New Orleans at the beginning of the year. I wouldn’t have known about it if not for Jones’s reading group, but I wouldn’t have bought and read it if I hadn’t stumbled across it at the book store. So, it’s a little bit providence, I guess.

The book is a murder mystery or thriller that tacks back and forth between present day (1980s) and 17th century London. The 17th century chapters are written in a quasi-archaic, but decidedly readable style from the first-person perspective of the architect Nicholas Dyer (who is based on an actual 17th century architect named Nicholas Hawksmoor who designed and built several churches in London, and who is also the subject of Iain Sinclair’s Lud Heat). Dyer is a strange man who recounts in the first few chapters his unfortunate childhood in the wake of a disease that strikes the city and leaves both of his parents dead. As a youth he takes up with a cult figure and learns the secrets of a kind of black magic. Over time, Dyer becomes a well-known architect in the city and applies the occult principles he learns to the design and construction of his churches.

The alternate chapters follow a series of unusual murders in 1980s London that all take place at the very churches that Dyer has designed. These murders are being investigated by a detective at Scotland Yard named… Nicholas Hawksmoor. As you can see, there is already an element of temporal slippage taking place here, but as the novel develops, the parallels between Dyer’s occult architecture and Hawksmoor’s investigation become more clear. Finally, there is almost a total blurring of temporality on the London landscape with the churches forming a kind of focal point.

The book is beautifully written and extremely intelligent. The narrative elements in each alternate chapter contain references to one another so that you feel a sense of continuity, as if the past is never quite gone and the present was there all along. I am not very familiar with London, having only been there once as a teenager, but Ackroyd is well known for his flaneur-like accounts of the city and its people. Reading Hawksmoor, this intimacy with the city comes across, and the reader is left with a visceral sense of the temporal depth of the cityscape, and the nuances of every street corner. I would like to read his non-fiction books about London – particularly (given my interest in watersheds) his book Thames: Sacred River. If it carries any of the atmosphere of Hawksmoor, it might be the kind of dark environmental writing I’ve been looking for.

I have not kept up with whatever discussion is happening around the novel in Duncan Jones’s open reading group. For all I know the whole idea might have fallen off the map. But I know that many book stores were sold out shortly after Jones announced the first reading, which makes my encounter with the book all the more serendipitous. If you happen to be in a used book store in the near future, be sure to check the A section on the literature shelf. Maybe you will be pleasantly surprised.

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