Monday, June 22, 2009

The Fall of Troy by Peter Ackroyd

The only Ackroyd I'd read prior to this was his first entry in the series of brief biographies he's doing, on Chaucer. I liked it quite a bit, and made a note to read some of his fiction at a later date.

This book was in the NYT Book Review a little while back, and I kept it in mind for future reference. I saw it on the shelf on a random book hunt, and figured it was time to read some Ackroyd.

I am very glad I did. Ackroy's prose in this book is engaging, sharp, and compelling. While I admit that the subject matter was not only of interest but of recent memory (I just finished a documentary on Troy), I do not think you have to be a fan of Homer to like this book.

Ackroyd sets up a fictional archaeologist with the same desires and complexities as his real life model. In real life, the finder of Troy was a relic-hunting thug who did almost anything to make the facts fit his theory--eventually destroying the real Troy in the process. Ackroyd uses that temple perfectly, adding his own sinister touches. Our protagonist is a man with many secrets, which he keeps from our other main character, his wife. She is basically sold to him in exchange for her parents to deal in the antiquities found at Troy. The more she realizes that something is wrong with her life, the more interesting the book becomes.

This is almost a mystery as Ackroyd allows the secrets of his characters to seep out into the pages like the secrets of Troy seeped out into the shovels, trowels, and sifters of the archaeological teams. We have to puzzle together the truth of these people with the myths of Homer echoing in the background. Ackroyd flavors the book with constant references to Homer, which I must tell you is a lit geek's dream. As the pages flew past (this was a very quick read for me) I was happily entertained by the combination of historical and literary references.

Within that framework, Ackroyd makes wonderful supporting characters. There is the mysterious assistant, willing to do anything for the archaeologist. A gossipy vicar is one of several visitors, including an American skeptic and a British linguist. A blind specialist in pottery uses his hands to feel the ages, while the Turkish supervisor lurks on. (This may be the best part of Ackroyd's crafting in this novel--the supervisor is given a harsh look on first blush, but as the story plays out, you begin to see that all is not as it appears. Like the reader, the supervisor must keep pushing for answers. It is, I think, a brilliant device.) I am again reminded of a good mystery--the supporting cast brings the main characters into sharp relief, but are more than just props.

It's hard to cover the plot of this one without giving too much away. The best I can tell you is that our "hero" is so driven to find his Troy that he will stop at nothing to get what he wants, leading to some rather suspicious circumstances and peril for those who disagree-even his wife. He will find Troy no matter what the cost. The other half of this coin is the wife, who, like the reader, must decide if she wishes to buy into his obsession-based logic or risk being crushed by its weight. The answer lies within the pages, which I strongly urge you to read!

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