three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
38-Jan-Feb-2009
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A-ThamesProlific British author Peter Ackroyd, whose works include 14 novels, 10 biographies, poetry, criticism, television scripts, and children’s books, puts forward this "companion volume" to his best-selling London: A Biography (2001).

The Topic: Peter Ackroyd blends legend, history, science, art, literature, and personal reflection in this sprawling, comprehensive "biography." He traces the 215-mile Thames River from its source in the idyllic Gloucestershire countryside through Oxford, Reading, Windsor, and London to the desolate marshlands where it meets the North Sea. Ackroyd revisits the varied peoples who lived along its banks—ancient Britons, Celts, Romans, and medieval Christians, all of whom considered the river sacred and lined it with hallowed sites—and examines its role in modern history, recounting the rise and fall of the London docklands in the 19th and 20th centuries. Whether Jungian archetype, commercial trade route, or T. S. Eliot’s "strong brown god," the brooding Thames emerges supreme in this study.
Nan A. Talese. 512 pages. $40. ISBN: 0385526237

Independent (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"The Thames’s daily flow (four-and-a-half billion gallons, measured at Teddington Weir) rivals that of the prolific Ackroyd, and this sturdy book twists and turns into an entertaining historical and geographical account redolent of England’s very heart." Christopher Hawtree

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"As with the river itself, one can enter Ackroyd’s book at almost any point and feel that here, right here, the Thames is revealed. Much of this feeling of familiarity and immediacy, of course, is the result of the author’s beautiful prose." Ben Cosgrove

St. Petersburg Times 4 of 5 Stars
"If London was a meticulous study of land, Thames is its twin, a groundbreaking portrait of the waters that run beneath." Vikram Johri

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Readers will be forewarned that a satisfactory passage of this more-than-500-page torrent of data, description and allusion may require public television-level Anglophilia. … That said, Ackroyd is erudite and engaging, and individual chapters are a joy to dip in and out of." Tim Rutten

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The concluding chapters of Thames are extraordinary, perhaps the finest he has written in a prolific career. … The worst shows up in Ackroyd’s occasional recourse to meaningless guff to bulk out the text (‘Those who dream by the river may dream of the future as well as of the past’; ‘We come from, and return to, the water’) and in an unblushing dependence upon material provided by two (gratefully acknowledged) researchers." Miranda Seymour

Miami Herald 3 of 5 Stars
"Ackroyd is least entertaining when he waxes philosophical on the meaning of rivers in general (‘Water is the matrix and nurse of all life’) or when he takes up space with long lists. … But he hits his stride when he writes about the Thames as the commercial heart of London." Anne Bartlett

Telegraph (UK) 3 of 5 Stars
"This approach, wonderfully productive and illuminating as it is, has its drawbacks. … Ackroyd’s dodging about up and down river, in addition to his constant excursions back and forth in time, seem at moments to risk submerging the physical reality of the waterway in myth." Gillian Tindall

Critical Summary

Peter Ackroyd can easily be forgiven his exaggeration in claiming that the Thames is more famous than the Amazon or the Mississippi. His gift for storytelling and lovely prose make Thames a rewarding read. Several critics thought the narrative structure should have flowed steadily from Point A to Point B instead of meandering, like the river itself, across space and time. They also bemoaned the long lists, generalizations, and repeated attempts to endow the river with spiritual significance. Despite these complaints, critics genuinely enjoyed Thames. "His Thames is not just the river that runs all the way from the Wiltshire borders through London to the sea (enough, you might think, for one book)," notes the reviewer from the Telegraph; "it is also the quintessential global River."