Take a walk along Silver Street - and meet the real Shakespeare!
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 7 May 2008
The Lodger came to me as a Christmas present that went unread till just now. Well, Happy Not-So-New Year to me - I'm so glad I finally got around to it! My bet is that you will be, too.
At first glance, the concept and/or genre of the book may not be universally inviting; but I assure anyone who picks this up that you'll be hooked from early on. So, before going into the subject, style and so on, please - take it on trust: this is a gem, one of the most positively infectious books around.
OK, here we go: Who would have guessed that the facts about Elizabethan hair-piece manufacture could be so absolutely fascinating! What's more, this material is utterly absorbing of its own accord, even without the Shakespeare-connection that is key to the book's construction.
All credit to the author, whose meticulous attention to detail is enriched by his obvious delight in the subject, along with a patent desire to communicate this to the reader with great clarity and goodwill. Scholarship this accomplished really shouldn't be so accessible - but it is!
Painstaking documentary research into immigrant populations and work patterns in Jacobean London is brought to vivid life, not just through the Shakespeare Effect, but by dint of sly and entertaining nods towards, for instance, Victoria Beckham, the hideous modern business concept of "networking" and the "bums on seats" commercial realities behind the vaunted offerings at the Globe and other venues (which, by the way, are shown to be not just theatres but places of assignation and integral to the sexual spice of the day).
Like Shakespeare, this fantastic work combines genuine instruction and fierce intellect with splendid entertainment. Not to mention a cast of characters - real people - who are brought to miraculous life by the author's dedicated leafing through arcane records and the like. I swear, by some alchemy, these people are lifted off old paper and imaginatively animated to the extent that you can hear their accents, smell the smells of their houses.
You don't even have to be a particular fan of the Bard (but how could you not be!) or a history-buff to get a genuine thrill, not just from the story that unfolds but from the amazing evocation of the Elizabethan/Jacobean world (especially the London setting) that is accomplished here.
That tangible sense of "real life" hits the reader with just the same intrigue and awe as, say, the cinematic equivalent whereby we might find ourselves viewing Ancient Roman or Trojan CGI vistas as if we were actually there (although this narrative equivalent is far more authentic in its particulars). The sense of verisimilitude is definitely the same; and this isn't some fictional Gladiator or mythic hero but Shakespeare, the man himself, Will in all his glory.
If you're not a fan now, perhaps this marvellous human perspective will help rehabilitate him from academic rarification? If, on the other hand, you're already a Shakespeare devotee, you will find some great new ways into his verse along the byways of Silver Street.
The temptation is to say that this delicious book "wears its scholarship lightly" or some such - but that would be a disservice to the deep forensic research, cross-referencing and deduction that underlie the riches shared here. It's the author's engaging voice that makes it all feel so easy and enticing; when actually great pains have been taken in bringing us these insights. The speculations are always credible, never shoe-horned. And, in any case, what we learn on the way is worth the trip on its own, so friendly and informed is our guide.
One last thought. This book represents true scholarship, genuine research, superior "yarn-spinning" and lovely, fluent sentences. In any just literary world, The Lodger would enjoy popular success far above that of The DaVinci Code (pardon my same breath).
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