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English Music

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From the prize-winning author of First Light, Chatterton, and Hawksmoor - a dazzlingly inventive and powerfully moving novel about the intricate ties between fathers and sons, between inheritance and culture, and between our understanding of the past and our grasp of the present. In post-World War I London, on the stage of the out-of-the-way Chemical Theatre, Clement Harco From the prize-winning author of First Light, Chatterton, and Hawksmoor - a dazzlingly inventive and powerfully moving novel about the intricate ties between fathers and sons, between inheritance and culture, and between our understanding of the past and our grasp of the present. In post-World War I London, on the stage of the out-of-the-way Chemical Theatre, Clement Harcombe and his young, motherless son, Timothy, perform acts of spiritual healing, their visionary skills lifting the weight of despair and failure from the shoulders of their small band of followers. For Timothy, a boy with remarkable psychic gifts, it is a thrilling apprenticeship, a wonderful life with an adored father. But in the eyes of the larger world, it is a wayward existence with a suspect parent. And when Timothy is abruptly removed from his father's side, from the familiar twilit world of phantoms and ghosts, and thrust into the simple world of his grandparents' home in the country, he is not too young to feel 'bereft of his past'. Yet nothing can remove him from the realm of his visions. And as he passes from a difficult childhood into a troubled adulthood - his father slipping in and out of his life - it is this other, private world that provides him with his only certainty. In his visions - unanticipated and wholly enveloping - Timothy is drawn into the creations of Charles Dickens and William Blake, Thomas Malory and Daniel Defoe, John Bunyan, Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Gainsborough and J.M.W. Turner. Accompanied by Merlin or Miss Havisham, William Byrd or William Hogarth, Crusoe's Friday or Wonderland's Alice, Timothy is swept across time and history. And as his mysterious journeys begin to illuminate the ideas that have shaped them, Timothy comes to discern the power of the writer over his characters, the composer over what is heard, the painter over what is perceived - learns, finally, to hear the 'English music' his father described to him as a child. It is the workings of the


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From the prize-winning author of First Light, Chatterton, and Hawksmoor - a dazzlingly inventive and powerfully moving novel about the intricate ties between fathers and sons, between inheritance and culture, and between our understanding of the past and our grasp of the present. In post-World War I London, on the stage of the out-of-the-way Chemical Theatre, Clement Harco From the prize-winning author of First Light, Chatterton, and Hawksmoor - a dazzlingly inventive and powerfully moving novel about the intricate ties between fathers and sons, between inheritance and culture, and between our understanding of the past and our grasp of the present. In post-World War I London, on the stage of the out-of-the-way Chemical Theatre, Clement Harcombe and his young, motherless son, Timothy, perform acts of spiritual healing, their visionary skills lifting the weight of despair and failure from the shoulders of their small band of followers. For Timothy, a boy with remarkable psychic gifts, it is a thrilling apprenticeship, a wonderful life with an adored father. But in the eyes of the larger world, it is a wayward existence with a suspect parent. And when Timothy is abruptly removed from his father's side, from the familiar twilit world of phantoms and ghosts, and thrust into the simple world of his grandparents' home in the country, he is not too young to feel 'bereft of his past'. Yet nothing can remove him from the realm of his visions. And as he passes from a difficult childhood into a troubled adulthood - his father slipping in and out of his life - it is this other, private world that provides him with his only certainty. In his visions - unanticipated and wholly enveloping - Timothy is drawn into the creations of Charles Dickens and William Blake, Thomas Malory and Daniel Defoe, John Bunyan, Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Gainsborough and J.M.W. Turner. Accompanied by Merlin or Miss Havisham, William Byrd or William Hogarth, Crusoe's Friday or Wonderland's Alice, Timothy is swept across time and history. And as his mysterious journeys begin to illuminate the ideas that have shaped them, Timothy comes to discern the power of the writer over his characters, the composer over what is heard, the painter over what is perceived - learns, finally, to hear the 'English music' his father described to him as a child. It is the workings of the

30 review for English Music

  1. 4 out of 5

    Tony Laplume

    English Music is a sensational act of literary biography. Half the story concerns the life of Timothy Harcombe as he grows from boy to man and struggles to figure out the exact nature of his relationship with his father. The other half is an unabashed ode to the English arts. Where these two aspects meet can perhaps be a little hard to define, and perhaps easier to misinterpret. Nonetheless they combine to great effect. Timothy's journey is a constant struggle of identity. For most of the story he English Music is a sensational act of literary biography. Half the story concerns the life of Timothy Harcombe as he grows from boy to man and struggles to figure out the exact nature of his relationship with his father. The other half is an unabashed ode to the English arts. Where these two aspects meet can perhaps be a little hard to define, and perhaps easier to misinterpret. Nonetheless they combine to great effect. Timothy's journey is a constant struggle of identity. For most of the story he is absolutely sure about how he views his father. In a blink he begins to question everything, and the diverging and then converging roads he and his father travel, the hidden aspects of their past, are revealed to resonate to a far greater degree than he could have imagined. All the while Peter Ackroyd presents a series of digressions involving famous individuals from English literature, music, and art, depicted in dream sequences that otherwise relate to Timothy's unique nature, what he doesn't realize and never fully comprehends as being a more authentic version of the life his father has led. It's all a balancing act of generational faith. At first, and if you don't follow Ackroyd's interests keenly enough, you may believe that all of this is an exercise in the author's unquestioning loyalty to English culture, a nationalist screed as it were. At one point, however, Timothy observes of his friend Edward, "[H]e had not been able to avoid his inheritance." Ackroyd has after all created a complicated portrait of inheritance. Looking through everything Ackroyd himself has written over the years, it's easy to see his great enthusiasm for and celebration of England's literary past. Yet English Music is a matter of finding a biography of that literature, as it were, not a chronological one but a synthesis and extrapolation of its basic character, "basic" being a deceptively simplistic term to use in this instance. Like Timothy and his father, Ackroyd's subject is sometimes a burden (as memorably depicted in Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the very figure of the albatross), even a physically debilitating phenomenon, ripe for false or temporary cures, no more affecting real change than occurs in the real world in your everyday observable life. So yes, it could be described as a depressing conclusion. Ackroyd's enduring belief, just as Timothy's unending need to reconcile his past with his present, and apparent unconcern with his future, in fact feeds his future. This is a message about the nature of time, how all things exist in an eternal present, for good or ill. It is a story filled with magic, and belongs in the tradition of Harry Potter and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell in that sense. If you aren't nearly as familiar with the English arts as Ackroyd, or perhaps too familiar, there are perhaps more challenges ahead of you. Personally I would love to see a future annotated version, which might be an ideal book for the reader who hasn't experienced any of it, or who experienced it long ago and like Ackroyd, is ready for a new friend, a familiar one, but a dynamic one. It's an act of metafiction, a pure work of fiction, and a dazzling literary achievement. And a very intimate, illuminating story. I've personally long admired Ackroyd. This has become one of his defining works for me. One more note: it has been leveled as a criticism against English Music that it shies away from female artists. One logical explanation would be to point out how Timothy's journey is one between a father and son, and that the specter of his mother plays just as significant a role. Rest assured, there appears to be no misogynistic warping here.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Maggie Roessler

    Before the book starts, Ackroyd leaves us a little note, saying that 'literary readers' will notice he used material from a bunch of other English artists, while 'alert readers' will understand why he did so. Um, yeah, most understated preface EVER. Ackroyd, you are not subtle. Just as with Chatterton, you leave no space for the reader to pick up hints or put together pieces for herself. In a series of pedantic conversations, you dunked my head repeatedly into your Theme and held it there. Happil Before the book starts, Ackroyd leaves us a little note, saying that 'literary readers' will notice he used material from a bunch of other English artists, while 'alert readers' will understand why he did so. Um, yeah, most understated preface EVER. Ackroyd, you are not subtle. Just as with Chatterton, you leave no space for the reader to pick up hints or put together pieces for herself. In a series of pedantic conversations, you dunked my head repeatedly into your Theme and held it there. Happily, while the Theme of English Music is a variation of what you were getting at in Chatterton, the development here was more tender and mystical, less smug pomo. What Tim learns and learns and learns again is that religion doesn't have a monopoly on the life-after-death consolation. Art-lovers get in on that action too, because all great artworks live forever - he often compares it to an unbroken undulating line, like the tops of hills and buildings seen from a car window, or the trajectory of a head bouncing up and down as a person walks along. All artworks - music, poetry, prose, painting, performing, and maybe even dancing (although here he could have gone a lot farther!) - influence one another and so are eternally recurring. Part Two of the Theme: all artworks are expressions not only of one artist, but of that artist's country or city, i.e. London. Despite its quasi-Jungian charm, that part of the Theme is boring to the point of tedium. It might have helped if Ackroyd had mentioned something about the National or Urban Ethos of other countries and cities. What is so very special about England and English? Yes you had a lot of geniuses, but you talk so much about essential Englishness and without comparison it's hard to understand what you're getting at. And another thing, why the pastiche? Every other chapter is a dream/vision in which Tim finds himself inside the reworking of English classics. Nice way to show off, but it does your Theme no favors and it definitely destroyed your book's pacing. You insist that the national character is inescapable. So, you should not need to blatantly imitate other authors, their work will come out of your own original stuff anyway! That's why your form doesn't actually help you make your point. It just gives you the chance to put your arguments into the mouths of a bunch of other authors which gets sooooo boring. (Although that said, the mish-mash of Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass together with Pilgrim's Progress was hands-down brilliant and so I forgive you a lot for that one.) This is all very frustrating, because again, all this theorizing overshadowed really fun stuff. Of course I want to read about mind readers and healers setting eerie moods in gas-lit English theaters in the '30s. Ackroyd, you write fun characters, witty dialogue, and intriguing relationships/predicaments, you just need to get out of your own way with the morals!

  3. 4 out of 5

    Make

    Of the Ackroyd novels I have read, this is both the most ambitious and the most severly flawed. Of the three stars I gave, two are for the immensely beautiful language that both soars poetic and chants in a trance-inducing way. The framing story is decent and has its heart in a good place. But the clou of the novel, Tim's many dream travels into English art and litterature, is a pretty unstable device and often disrupts the flow of the human story. I know Dickens and Defoe well enough to enjoy t Of the Ackroyd novels I have read, this is both the most ambitious and the most severly flawed. Of the three stars I gave, two are for the immensely beautiful language that both soars poetic and chants in a trance-inducing way. The framing story is decent and has its heart in a good place. But the clou of the novel, Tim's many dream travels into English art and litterature, is a pretty unstable device and often disrupts the flow of the human story. I know Dickens and Defoe well enough to enjoy the dream sequences (and I adore William Byrd's music), but Ackroyd simply pushes the envelope too far when he forces me to sit through an enraptured lecture on English 18th century landscape painters. And the "Albion awake!" poem pushed me over the cliff for good. In moments like those, the novel comes disturbingly close to a brand of nationalist-mystical flag-waving we can do without. But three out of five I gave it, if only to say I enjoyed Tim and his father's strange tale and the boldness of the book's scope and the glories of its language.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Paul

    Embedded in this experimental novel is a moving story about a son and his father. The novel alternates between first-person chapters showing Timothy Harcombe's coming of age and third person chapters making Timothy a character in works of English literature (e.g., Alice in Wonderland) and dropping him into other works of English art. Unfortunately for the overall novel, Timothy's coming of age is way more compelling than the experimental chapters. Ackroyd makes some interesting statements about Embedded in this experimental novel is a moving story about a son and his father. The novel alternates between first-person chapters showing Timothy Harcombe's coming of age and third person chapters making Timothy a character in works of English literature (e.g., Alice in Wonderland) and dropping him into other works of English art. Unfortunately for the overall novel, Timothy's coming of age is way more compelling than the experimental chapters. Ackroyd makes some interesting statements about English Art in them and performs some impressive feats of imitation, but he does little to advance the story. To make the novel work as a whole, the experimental chapters need to move the story along. As it is, they slow it to a snail's pace. I will say that I love Ackroyd's prose, so while this book is probably a poor introduction to his writing, I'll definitely read more of him in the future.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Mazy

    I read this book nice and slow so I could take in all the beautiful imagery and flowery language. Purple prose? Yes, in parts, and yes, sometimes it did get tedious, especially during the dream sequences. But I loved it in spite of it. I liked that it was very different from other novels, yet with an easily recognizable theme. I liked the story. I liked the overuse of literary devices. I liked the imagry. I loved the art used between each chapter. I would highly recommend this book, but would al I read this book nice and slow so I could take in all the beautiful imagery and flowery language. Purple prose? Yes, in parts, and yes, sometimes it did get tedious, especially during the dream sequences. But I loved it in spite of it. I liked that it was very different from other novels, yet with an easily recognizable theme. I liked the story. I liked the overuse of literary devices. I liked the imagry. I loved the art used between each chapter. I would highly recommend this book, but would also suggest that the reader take their time and not rush it.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Laura

    I loved this - the complexity, story world, structure. Sadly I am not a scholarly enough reader to pick up on all Ackroyd's references, but surprisingly that didn't interfere with the enjoyment of the story for me. Ackroyd's work is always clever, but this had good heart.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Fikri

    Not my usual cup of tea, but got it off a friend's old metafictions class reading list. There are two parts to the book, told in alternating chapters: first, the story of a father-son relationship punctuated with ghosts from the pasts and well, actual ghosts, and second, a series of dream sequences (each self-contained but tangentially related to the real world narrative — the protagonist passes out each time these happen) based on classic works of English literature, music, and art. I'm not suff Not my usual cup of tea, but got it off a friend's old metafictions class reading list. There are two parts to the book, told in alternating chapters: first, the story of a father-son relationship punctuated with ghosts from the pasts and well, actual ghosts, and second, a series of dream sequences (each self-contained but tangentially related to the real world narrative — the protagonist passes out each time these happen) based on classic works of English literature, music, and art. I'm not sufficiently well-versed in said classics to be able to fully understand the latter part of the book, but even if I were, I'm not sure I'd be into the trite nationalist tone and the sense that I'm being moralised at (but about what precisely, I'm not sure). I really liked the first Alice in Wonderland/The Pilgrim's Progress dream sequence for its wordplay but ended up skimming a lot of the others. I kept reading because I was invested in the father-son relationship, but it's a bit too thin to hold the book together and the "revelations" at the end were nothing to write home about.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Patrick Barry

    This was an interesting books filled with alternating chapters. One followed a boy who was part of a father/son seance team. The other chapters find the son in dreams within the confines of English Literature, Painting and Music. Having read the underlying literature I really appreciated what the author was doing. I had less experience with the paintings and none on the music, so I assume these chapters are as good as the literature chapters. It was a unique concept. I would warn though if you h This was an interesting books filled with alternating chapters. One followed a boy who was part of a father/son seance team. The other chapters find the son in dreams within the confines of English Literature, Painting and Music. Having read the underlying literature I really appreciated what the author was doing. I had less experience with the paintings and none on the music, so I assume these chapters are as good as the literature chapters. It was a unique concept. I would warn though if you have no experience in the arts of the English, this is not the book for you. On the music chapters I was constantly wndering what things meant, so knowledge of the underlying material is a key to understanding the book.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Linda Munroe

    The relationship between Timothy and his Father changes as Timothy grows from child to adult. Timothy is a gifted spiritual healer and his father is a semi-retired magician. The chapters alternate between a narrative about the present and the things that Timothy experiences growing up and his dreams. The dream chapters interrupt the flow of the story and I am not famiar enough with the literature on which they are based to judge them.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Chiefdonkey Bradey

    Reading this book, I saw my father's face glimmer over my own - he breathed my air

  11. 5 out of 5

    Christine

    I had already read this book, years ago, and could remember nothing about it except that it was rather special. So I read it again, and am still of the same opinion. On one level, the story of a boy and his relationship with his father, grandparents and friends. On a different stratum, an examination of English Music : which is the author's name for the great sweep of culture across the centuries - music, art, and literature : how we create these things, and yet are ourselves shaped by them. He I had already read this book, years ago, and could remember nothing about it except that it was rather special. So I read it again, and am still of the same opinion. On one level, the story of a boy and his relationship with his father, grandparents and friends. On a different stratum, an examination of English Music : which is the author's name for the great sweep of culture across the centuries - music, art, and literature : how we create these things, and yet are ourselves shaped by them. He seems to say that we are as much created by the "music" as we are by the generations of our forebears. I would echo the critic in The Times: strange, and brilliant.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Don

    The permanent theme of every Ackroyd book, fiction or otherwise, gets the turbo treatment in this evocative novel. There are things about England that ever was and the whisper to us on the street corners and down alleyways and always pull us back to what the Celt and the Saxon first saw in its grey meadows and translucent skies. Every poet that ever was is compelled to set out a bit of this story; and ditto all the painters and composers too. The tale is one of a boy’s childhood, set in the 1920s The permanent theme of every Ackroyd book, fiction or otherwise, gets the turbo treatment in this evocative novel. There are things about England that ever was and the whisper to us on the street corners and down alleyways and always pull us back to what the Celt and the Saxon first saw in its grey meadows and translucent skies. Every poet that ever was is compelled to set out a bit of this story; and ditto all the painters and composers too. The tale is one of a boy’s childhood, set in the 1920s, growing up with his father in the vicinity of City Road. His father plies a trade as a spiritual medium, channelling mystical energies in ways that allow him to deal with the ailments of the people who attend the stage performances of his power. The boy, Timothy, moves within the small circle of his father’s adoring followers and atmosphere is created of immersion in the in the spirit and physical spaces of this part of central east London. Timothy is given to fits of reverie which bring him into close though surreal contact with individuals, fictional and historical, who speak of things which, in their effect, concern the constancy of England and its ‘music’, ever to be heard by those sensitive enough to be attuned to its vibrations. The Christian of Pilgrim’s Progress follows Alice and the White Rabbit across an imaginary landscape; a consulting detective who isn’t quite Sherlock Holmes; the Tudor music master William Byrd; William Hogarth are some of the characters who are lined up to reiterate the English theme in chapters which alternate with the story’s main narrative. In real time Timothy is separated from his father by the arrival of his maternal grandparents (his mother died giving birth to him) who take him off to the rural town where they raised their daughter. His contact with his enigmatic parent becomes infrequent and he finds reasons to fault the veracity of man’s spiritual calling. A brief return to London is the occasion for learning how his father’s circle has disintegrated, leaving behind a sense of disappointment in what he had meant to all the participants. He returns to his grandparents and the years go by. As Timothy moves through his adolescent years he comes to learn that the spirit that had drawn together the strange group had come from him rather than his father. But that it was there at all was because of a lineage that extended through that line which is mixed with a gipsy account of life lived in communication with mystical landscapes. There is something a bit laboured about the way in which Ackroyd develops his themes in this account, with a sledgehammer being used to drive home the points he wants to make. But anyone who has lived his life in the places that are at the heart of the story – Hackney, City Road, Bunhill – as I have at least has an understanding of the moods that are being evoked. For that reason he’s an author that I supposed I’ll keep going back to.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Tess

    English Music “Dreams are very particular things, Edward. They can be more real than anything in the ordinary world. Have you ever considered that?’ Edward simply looked at him. ‘And do you know why? Because a dream brings out the secret life of the world. It can reflect all the things we have forgotten we knew. It can bring out the spirit of a place or a person, like music which no one has previously been able to hear.” This short passage brings out the overall sense of the book for me. There is English Music “Dreams are very particular things, Edward. They can be more real than anything in the ordinary world. Have you ever considered that?’ Edward simply looked at him. ‘And do you know why? Because a dream brings out the secret life of the world. It can reflect all the things we have forgotten we knew. It can bring out the spirit of a place or a person, like music which no one has previously been able to hear.” This short passage brings out the overall sense of the book for me. There is a main narrative running through it, of father and son, Clement and Timothy Harcombe, and their life in London. Clement performs acts of healing for a living by contacting the dead, and Timothy has a gift for assisting him. The book is full of characters, curious, interesting and unpredictable; people I wanted to know more about because they were never quite what they seemed at first meeting. However, breaking out from this thread is Timothy’s adventures in the worlds of the characters of English literature and art in the past. Timothy merely takes sidesteps in place and time, and for him they are normal and unexceptional, a place for questions and thoughts. And so it became for myself, and as a reader, I found his move to his grandparents in ‘real’ time and space the most unsettling of all the shifts of location. This questioning around time is the important aspect of the book. The past is an inherent part of who we are now, but it is not immediately apparent and has to be discovered. The individual is rooted in a past that is collective and shared, and it is imagination, which can find the spirit within and the connections between people and things, that matters most. This is not a straightforward narrative story, but is a shifting exploration of ideas and time. I leave the choice as to whether you read this book there.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Alexis

    I haven't read a novel in a while and was happy to settle into this simple and quick read that I picked up for a buck at a used book shop in Houston. Then I remembered why I don't read Ackroyd novels--I feel like he's trying to teach me a lesson. (I loved his book on Thomas More and liked other bios.) Here he has an idea about place, genetics and inheritance, and he writes his characters and plot in accordance with his idea. Though I skipped some of the instruction-filled dream sequences, I coul I haven't read a novel in a while and was happy to settle into this simple and quick read that I picked up for a buck at a used book shop in Houston. Then I remembered why I don't read Ackroyd novels--I feel like he's trying to teach me a lesson. (I loved his book on Thomas More and liked other bios.) Here he has an idea about place, genetics and inheritance, and he writes his characters and plot in accordance with his idea. Though I skipped some of the instruction-filled dream sequences, I could not put it down. Loved the father's shameful secret at the heart of it all.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Lauren Albert

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. The book alternates between the regular narrative and the narrator's waking dreams. I found myself looking forward to the end of the dreams and getting back to the "main" story. It was obvious from the beginning that the narrator (not his father) was the bearer of the power of healing but perhaps it was obvious to everyone. I've been trying to work out the connection of that story to the stories in the waking dream but perhaps my English major mind has gone to sleep...

  16. 4 out of 5

    Georgia

    I really enjoyed the central plot of this book and found the characters compelling. Unfortunately the addition of the dream sequences was a bit contrived and the message of inheritance was overstated to say the least. However, despite its faults, this book is an enjoyable read with a good story at its centre.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Jason

    a fairly odd book...my first impression of it was distinctly unfavorable...it was tedious and a bit too atmospheric and ethereal for me... i'm not entirely willing to stand by this....i'll need to read it again...

  18. 4 out of 5

    Fiona Robson

    Another amazing book by Peter Ackroyd. I was really disappointed to finish this novel as I have become completely wrapped up in the story and characters. Especially loved the father/son relationship. This was such a heart warming read. Crying out to be made into a film!

  19. 5 out of 5

    Alana

    A weird one, a little hard to get into and very wordy. Hard to follow if you're not so clued up on classical English literature but there is a great story underneath this if you can perserve with it.

  20. 5 out of 5

    P. R.

    As good as Hawksmoor, better than First Light, not as good as The House of Doctor Dee, but true Ackroyd, restoring the mystery to human life.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Valerie

    Very strange story of a boy growing up at the turn of the century in London, who has strong powers of healing.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Erica Gregory

    The author's usual high standard

  23. 5 out of 5

    Jessie

    I simply did not have the rich literary history to adequately enjoy this book- but if it is so derivative, would I have enjoyed it anyway?

  24. 4 out of 5

    Amy

    I like this book, but it has suffered the fate of so many books that ended up at the bottom of a pile... Shelved to be picked up again in the future.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Leslie Graff

    Nicely written but I'm just not a dream sequence person...

  26. 5 out of 5

    Kolinski Kristovski

  27. 4 out of 5

    Oliver

  28. 4 out of 5

    Walther Jensen

  29. 4 out of 5

    Molly

  30. 4 out of 5

    T.

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