The Peacock Room by Anna Sayburn Lane
Literature can be a dangerous thing, at least in the life of English literature lecturer Helen Oddfellow in this, her second literary appearance. In this exciting and tense novel with much to say about the exploitation of young women, William Blake’s poetry and illustrations provide the inspiration for much of the action. Not that this is a dry book of literary history; this is a contemporary thriller which goes further than “woman in peril” and maintains a fierce pace. The settings, in a university, in the streets where Blake lived, in well known museums and libraries, tries to evoke not only the contemporary danger to various people, but also give a glimpse of the artist and his contemporaries. This is a fast moving book full of incident and interest, informative about Blake and others, and condemning how certain men have a negative concept of women. I found the writing vivid and engaging, and Helen a very human protagonist who has doubts and feels emotions as well as trying to solve mysteries. The way this story builds up, but with plenty of incidents en route, is so well constructed as to be difficult to put down. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this memorable book.
The Prologue sets an important theme of the book; a man preparing by practicing with a gun, his thoughts depicted as determined and aggressive. Helen is shown in the first chapter as waking alone, contacted by a friend Nick, and suggesting that they meet in Crispin’s flat, an older man who welcomes visitors. As he reveals disturbing drawings, Nick mentions Rintrah, one of Blake’s subjects who is a disturbing influence. He points out that one of the most knowledgeable people of the subject is Professor Pentrarch Greenwood, a person Helen has to encounter as she has to take over his tutor group for a while. Not that she is keen on this assignment, as her knowledge of Blake is limited. She calls on a Blake expert, Barbara, to recommend books and things she must quickly absorb in order to teach effectively. Helen soon discovers that it is not so much the volume of knowledge that she possesses about Blake which is important, as much as her relationship with the five students in the group, who seem to be curiously vulnerable or brashly self confident. The various characters in the novel interact and discover more about what is truly going on in a series of events which tests everyone.
This is a novel which, like its predecessor “Unlawful Things”, combines literary investigation with tense action and drama. I enjoy the setting of the various events in this novel, even though some of the situations are disturbing. The characters are memorable in their reality and their emotions as well as their sudden bursts of understanding. Helen is an excellent main protagonist as she struggles with her own guilt, sadness and regret, but she is also inspired, brave and clever and dealing with the extraordinary situation she finds herself in throughout this novel. It is difficult to review a thriller without giving too much away , but I recommend this book as an extremely well written novel with many layers of interest.
I really enjoyed this book, and learnt a lot about William Blake and his contemporaries, just as I learnt a lot about Christopher Marlowe from this author’s first book. It is certainly a great way to learnt literary history!