ENGLISH MUSIC by Peter Ackroyd


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Often brilliant but ultimately flawed new fiction from the British Ackroyd (First Light; Dickens; etc.) in which the ideas have more life than the characters that express them. Timothy, the narrator of this leisurely paced consideration of time and the legacy of history, is a sensitive boy, troubled by dreams and haunted by the past--both that of his family and of England. Timothy is also the source of the power that helps his father perform psychic healings. Aware of his own unusual background and a voracious reader of English literature, he also becomes the detective, ""looking for the harmony, the pattern,"" the proof that there is ""an organic unity between past and present."" This unity is found in literature, in art, music, and the individual--with revelations occurring in sudden dreams, prompted by a particular situation: a schoolmaster's talk on music leads to an encounter with a colleague of Henry Purcell's; a reading of Pilgrim's Progress evokes a frightening meeting with Christian, as well as Alice of Alice in Wonderland; and, in a gallery, a Gainsborough painting becomes a lesson on 18th-century British art. Such encounters, while marvelously imagined and full of clever allusions, overshadow the more conventional story of Timothy's own life. A move to the country, necessitated by his father's financial difficulties, is followed by an aimless adulthood in which Timothy resumes the healings with his father; but, ashamed of his role, he soon flees, only to meet up again when his father, now a circus performer, comes to the village where Timothy lives. Reconciled to both his own and his country's past, Timothy can now accept the legacy of family and time, that ""passage of music from generation to generation."" Trouble is, Timothy, his dad, and assorted pals are not as lively or as real as the ghosts, fictional and historical, conjured up to make the point. Still: much to savor and admire.

Pub Date: Oct. 5th, 1992
Page count: 416pp
Publisher: Knopf