Peter Ackroyd,
The Lambs of London
(Chatto & Windus, 2004; Anchor, 2007)

Peter Ackroyd is an undisputed expert on London and a number of its literary inhabitants. He has written prolifically on subjects ranging from transvestism in Dressing Up to Notes on New Culture with biography, brief lives and many fine fiction titles added.

This book is one of those fiction titles, and after other books based on the real inhabitants of that teeming metropolis, he focuses on a brother and sister who found fame in their works of Shakespeare without the naughty bits.

Writing a novel based on real events is a blessing and a curse. The bones of the narrative are already in place, but woe betide any who deviates too much from known fact. However, Ackroyd is so steeped in the history and lore of London that there was little chance he might stray from the facts. In fact, he knows the city and its past so well he manages to transport the reader to a very real and vivid streetscape. This novel evokes a London that disappeared centuries ago.

The story recounted is not a "full and complete" life of the remarkable Lamb family. It is a retelling of an amazing episode in their lives and probably leaves room for some future novels based on them.

The major characters on show here are real people who walked the streets of London: Charles Lamb, an aspiring writer living a boring life as a clerk with the East India Company, and Mary, who is caring for a father going senile and a mother who tries to dominate the family. Both siblings are Shakespeare mad, quoting tracts of his work to each other.

They are intrigued when William Ireland discovers a lost work by the bard. The word spreads and the novel gallops along with vital characters, intrigues and plans. Although the actual events portrayed are known, the author manages to hold the reader in suspense through his characterisation and writing skills.

The Lambs of London is a great story well told, but I will not reveal the conclusion because in many ways this is a whodunit in a historical setting. It is also light while at the same time teaching us much of the manners and mores of the characters and the time. If you enjoy history or literature or just a cracking tale this book will reward you.

review by
Nicky Rossiter

6 December 2008

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