Kirkus Reviews QR Code
THAMES by Peter Ackroyd Kirkus Star

THAMES

The Biography

By Peter Ackroyd

Pub Date: Nov. 4th, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-385-52623-4
Publisher: Talese/Doubleday

Meandering journey along the rivers Thames with the eloquent and prolific Ackroyd (Newton, 2008, etc.).

The book is not (1) a river guidebook; (2) a John McPhee–like first-person journey featuring interviews with colorful river folk; (3) a conventional history of the Thames from Big Bang to 2008. It is a cultural history divided into many parts and chapters that wanders around, loops back on itself, floods, trickles, rushes and slows just like, well, a river. The author quickly dispenses with statistics in the first chapter, where we learn the length of the Thames, the number of its bridges (134), its varying speeds and depths. He then introduces us to the idea, developed throughout the narrative, that a river is a work of art. Ackroyd considers the metaphorical power of rivers—what they have represented to us, to artists—then returns to the Thames’s geological history, noting that it was once part of a mega-river that comprised, among others, the Rhine. He teaches us about the Thames’s tributaries, including the buried Fleet, covered over in the 18th century but still flowing below the streets of London. We learn about the Thames’s long religious history, its shrines and saints; we see the river as a place of royal power. Ackroyd writes so well that we find ourselves enjoying even the platitude that water makes life possible. He teaches us about the bridges and boats, docks and dockworkers, criminals and crimefighters, embankments and floods (the worst, in 1953, killed more than 300). We learn about the birds on the river, the animals nearby, the fish that mostly died, then returned, the pleasure gardens and executions, the filth, the music and the art.

Riverine structure, lovely and liquid language.