Author: Peter Ackroyd
Description (source): Charles Wychwood, a sickly man who struggles to write poetry, comes across a portrait in an antique shop. He comes to the conclusion that the portrait, although it is of an elderly man, is actually of Thomas Chatterton, who supposedly had committed suicide as a teenager. The book moves back and forth in time between the present day and Chatterton’s lifetime, as well as the nineteenth century and novelist George Meredith who posed as the dead Chatterton for a famous painting by Henry Wallis—who absconded with Meredith’s wife.
Plot: As Charles tries to prove that Chatterton faked his own death and lived a long and successful life as a forger, Charles’ former employer, formerly successful novelist Harriet Scrope plots to get her hands on the painting in order to revive her dying career.
Characters: The majority of the action is set in the modern day, where none of the characters are attractive enough to the reader to inspire any regard whatsoever. The past, both Chatterton’s and Meredith’s are fragmentary and one never gets a sense of either of them as a person.
Writing style: I disliked Ackroyd’s writing style, probably because I disliked the characters so intensely that I begrudged spending my time with them. Charles, the protagonist, is so passive as to be slapworthy. Harriet is simply repulsive and refers to herself as “Mother.” Other more interesting characters such as Chatterton himself, come across as bit players, which in itself is frustrating.
Audience: this is literary fiction.
Wrap-up: The idea of a novel that features Chatterton, the famous painting of Chatterton, and the attempt to unravel their mysteries still beguiles me—and the idea is so much better than the execution that it’s a severe disappointment! 2/5*