Thursday, 27 October 2011

The American Boy by Andrew Taylor

Not long ago I proofed an installment of Dickens' publication Household Words for the Dickens Journal Online project, which invited volunteers to help that get a digitised run of that journal online (along the lines of Project Gutenberg's distributed proofreading). The first article in the one I did was about the quality of housing in an area of London which was greatly in need of improved sanitation. It could have been preliminary reading for The American Boy, which is set in London and Gloucestershire not long after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Household Words may have been published much later in the century, but conditions for the poor hadn't changed much in the intervening period, and the rookeries of St Giles, described in the book, had their equivalents in the city in Dickens' day. And that's one of the best things about TAB: although the research has clearly been meticulous, it doesn't intrude at all but is a natural and integral part of the story. I'm sure that the odd anachronism may have crept in, but I wasn't conscious, the way I often am, of reading and simultaneously thinking "Would he...?", "Was that really...?"

The American boy in question is Edgar Allan Poe, whose beginnings and ending were, as author Andrew Taylor points out in an afterword, somewhat shrouded in mystery. Taylor was intrigued by Poe's story "William Wilson" and took the idea of a boy haunted by his double to create two schoolboys who look alike, Edgar and his friend, Charlie Frant, pupils, for a short time, of narrator Tom Shield. Although he is only an impoverished schoolmaster, Shield's life becomes inextricably entangled with this pair when he is sent to London to collect Charlie and take him to school for the first time.

One of the things that I enjoyed was the setting in "my" bit of London - Russell Square and Southampton Row, where Poe lived when he was in England as a child. Some of the original Georgian houses in the area survive and, as with the descriptions in Household Words, it makes it easier to imagine the setting, with hackney carriages coming and going. The St Giles rookery was the area between Great Russell Street, where the British Museum stands and Seven Dials, now loomed over by the massive and ugly Centrepoint building - ironically, an area which is still a mess, thanks to reconstruction by Transport for London which seems to go on for ever. It was a terrifying place in the early nineteenth century, and it says much for Tom Shield that he was prepared to venture there as he tries to understand what has become of Charlie Frant's father.

The action moves from London, to Stoke Newington on the capital's outskirts, to Gloucestershire, where Tom accompanies the boys as their tutor. Over the course of a cold Christmas at Monkshill House, a dreadful discovery is made and Tom, a natural bystander who seems fated to be manipulated by those around him, finds himself caught up in accusations and lies. The atmosphere at Monkshill is chilly and oppressive, the unhealthy ice-house in the grounds casting a miasma that reflects the unpleasantness indoors, where Tom observes the machinations of the monstrous, self-made Stephen Carswell and his attempts to direct the future of his daughter Flora and his cousin, the widowed Sophia Frant.

This is a gothic novel on a grand scale, lending itself to comparisons with Dickens and Wilkie Collins, though it most reminded me of Charles Palliser's The Quincunx (but admittedly, not quite so tortuous). I'm not quite sure that all the ramifications of the complex plot worked for me, but Taylor handles class distinction well, persuading the reader by example that different standards applied then. It's full of larger-than-life characters, some of them attractive, some decidedly not, but it's also about a world of ambivalence where it's not certain who should be trusted as each person pursues his or her own ends. Don't be put off by mentions of Dickens (or Palliser): it's a gripping and readable story, and I rattled through it in three days. I read it for the RIP VI Challenge.

5 comments:

  1. I thought this was pretty good when I read it four or five years ago but can't now remember much about it. Intrigued to learn exactly where The Rookery was. I had no idea but can now picture it quite nicely, thanks.

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  2. I recognize a lot of these names from reading Anne Perry's mysteries. London geography is very muddy in my head. It would probably help if I looked at a map. I love reading about Poe. Putting this one on my list.

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  3. This sounds really good. My favorite Dickens' is Bleak House, I enjoyed Palliser's Quincunx, and I love Wilkie Collins. Your comparisons sold me. Thanks for a good R.I.P. recommendation!

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  4. Cath, if I read about a place I know at all, I like to be able to visualise it clearly.

    Kay, I'm a map addict! I can spend house looking at them.

    Jenclair, I liked Quincunx very much - in fact, I think I might read it again.

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  5. I too am a map fan! In fact my current read is called 'Map Addict'.

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