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Sunday, October 03, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Brit lit: "The Clerkenwell Tales"

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By now the folds and runnels of Peter Ackroyd's brain must resemble nothing more than a map of London. Ackroyd, author of "London: A Biography" and the novel "Hawksmoor," has so absorbed his city's ancient beginnings, history and culture, his memory banks must amount to a virtual cabinet of curiosities, stuffed with the details of two millennia of life in his beloved city — what Londonites have eaten, drunk, worshiped and slept in, on and with over the last 2,000 years. Ackroyd's novel "The Clerkenwell Tales" is the latest example of his virtuoso mastery of his subject matter.

Set in the dying days of the 14th century, "The Clerkenwell Tales" is an homage of sorts to Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales." The plot unfolds in chapters titled "The Clerk's Tale," "The Miller's Tale," "The Monk's Tale" and "The Manciple's Tale" (look it up).

It's 1399, and the world is driven by signs and portents. In Clerkenwell, one of London's oldest neighborhoods, a "mad" convent nun utters prophecies that may or may not lead to the overthrow of King Richard II. A group of religious heretics is dedicated to a 14th-century version of terrorist violence. A shadowy group of church and governmental insiders named Dominus, which may or may not have existed in real life, strategizes under the cloak of respectable London society.

"The Clerkenwell Tales"

by Peter Ackroyd
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 213 pp., $24.95

The plots and counterplots of these sects provide the mystery/thriller framework of the novel, but its revelations are not the payoff. The story's hold lies in its evocation of a time when the currents of everyday life flowed through channels of religion, astrology, prophecy and drama, as in this detail from a religious celebration of "the mysteries" during the week of Corpus Christi in "The Reeve's Tale":

"Noah and Noah's wife had performed as Adam and Eve on the previous morning, and had exchanged their white leather costumes for the more familiar gear of smocks and gowns. 'Let go, Dick. Let go!' Noah's wife was played by the clerk of St. Michael in Aldgate; he was laughing as a pair of false breasts was tied to his chest by the keeper of costumes. 'This is so tight I cannot breathe.'... The wig of Noah's wife resembled a great yellow mop, but the clerk of St. Michael raised it reverently above his head." This archaic world is messy, gross and fascinating, and Ackroyd's re-creation provides that odd reassurance in the knowledge that previous ages were at least as bizarre and brutal as our own.

After one hapless character gets his ear bit off by a band of marauding women, "the women, sensing his pain, yelled in triumph. It was the savage yell, hard, prolonged, exultant, which often sounded through London. It was the cry of the city itself. They left him in Old Change, the blood running from his wound into the earth and stone."

Reviewed by Mary Ann Gwinn

"The Red Queen"

Don't expect a smooth-flowing narrative in British novelist Margaret Drabble's latest effort. "The Red Queen" is a hodgepodgy work that cuts a swath across time and culture to explore ethics, symbolism, maternal devotion, paternal expectations, madness and mortality.

For the first half of the book, Drabble revives and embroiders upon the 18th-century memoirs of real-life Korean Crown Princess Hyegyong who, despite her ostensibly sheltered life, witnessed devastating intrigue within the palace compound and survived lethal power plays while many around her did not.

While Drabble takes liberties with Lady Hyegyong's story, she doesn't meddle with the basic, tragic facts: the Crown Princess was married to a mentally tormented man; their firstborn son was sickly and died when he was very young; her husband ultimately perished at the command of his father, the King.

The second part of the novel is more conventionally fictional. Set in the present, this part of the book focuses on the journeys — both psychological and physical — of Dr. Babs Halliwell, who is traveling from London to Seoul to present a paper at an international conference on medical ethics. Just before her departure, she receives a package — an anonymous source has sent her a copy of the Crown Princess' memoirs.

"The Red Queen"

by Margaret Drabble
Harcourt, 368 pp., $24

Babs reads the volume on her flight to Korea and feels an immediate connection with Lady Hyegyong. Like her, she has suffered the loss of a child and has endured marriage to a mentally unstable man.

Haunted by the memoirs, Babs feels compelled during her brief stay in Seoul to visit the palace where the Crown Princess had been sequestered for most of her life. She is joined in her sightseeing by Dr. Oo, an expatriate Korean neurologist who is eager to share with her the glories of the country he has left behind, and by Dr. Van Jost, a renowned Dutch academic whose scholarship centers on globalization and risk. This portion of the tale also includes a seduction that is spectacularly languorous, considering the 72-hour time frame in which it occurs.

In the limited space of this brief review, it may seem that Drabble's use of coincidence in this bifurcated novel is brazen. But in the actual telling the parallels play out rather more subtly, contemplating facets of the human experience which transcend distinctions of time, culture, or gender. The preoccupation with clothing, however — particularly the reoccurrence of scarlet apparel — does demand attention.

"The Red Queen" is further accessorized with a dusting of magical realism and a Hitchcockian cameo appearance by the author herself.

The one element that threatens to unravel this intricate weave of tales is the unidentified source of the gift of the memoirs to Babs. This authorial contrivance, so crucial in linking the two halves of the novel, is never satisfactorily resolved from the reader's point of view.

Reviewed by Barbara Lloyd McMichael

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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