The Ashes of London | Andrew Taylor | 2016, Pb 2017 | HarperCollins | 482p | Review copy | Buy the book
On 4 September 1666 London had been burning for two days, the progress of the flames unstoppable, the rainless hot days unrelenting. And now the unimaginable is happening. The great cathedral of St Paul’s, which has dominated London for centuries, is on fire and all that the shocked inhabitants can do is stand and watch. But there is even more to the loss. As the roof falls and the floor collapses the treasures in the vault, books and papers hidden away for safe keeping from the fire, go up in flames. James Marwood, son of a disgraced printer and now a government agent with a great deal to prove, is among the witnesses. When a boy runs towards the cathedral, it’s only Marwood’s quick thinking that saves his life. As he wraps his cloak around the boy, Marwood is given a shock. The boy is no boy but a young woman and she tears away into the crowd, taking Marwood’s cloak with her.
A body is found in the smouldering remains of the cathedral, killed not by fire but a knife, his thumbs tied behind his back. Marwood has to wonder if there’s a connection between the corpse and the mysterious young woman. Fortunately, or other wise, Marwood’s master at the Palace of Whitehall, Williamson, tasks Marwood with discovering the body’s identity.
The Ashes of London gives us the story of Marwood’s investigation, in Marwood’s own words, but it isn’t the only tale. Half of the novel focuses on Cat, a young woman with dreams of designing a new London with grand buildings and regal avenues, but who, in reality, must deal with being the poor ward of her rich uncle Master Alderley and all that this entails. It isn’t long before Cat is on the run for her life, taking us with her across a London devastated by fire.
This is a novel that builds slowly following its hugely striking and evocative opening chapter set outside the burning St Paul’s. For a short while I found it a little hard to follow all the threads and keep track of the names. But this is because London has become a place in which almost everyone has something to hide. The legacy of the Civil War, Cromwell’s rule and, most particularly, the execution of Charles I and his son’s determined pursuit of his killers, divides families. Both Marwood and Cat must pay the consequences for the actions of their fathers. Once this becomes clearer, The Ashes of London becomes a thoroughly immersive read. There are so many layers of feeling here. The similarities between Cat and Marwood are striking, although the fact that Cat is a woman makes all the difference to her story. Marwood is able to work for a living. There are few options open to Cat. But she is no passive victim. There are moments when she made my jaw drop with her ferocity and determination. I really liked Cat.
Andrew Taylor’s portrait of this poor, suffering London is brilliantly done and we move around the city freely. Equally well done is the dark mood that overhangs the novel. This is not just the result of the murder hunt but also because of the weight of the past. This is not a city at peace, despite the glory of the Restoration, and the fire is almost a physical reflection of the city’s inner torment, endured by people such as Marwood and Cat. And at times there is something of the melodramatic and gothic about the novel’s events, notably in its fantastic final section. My one complaint is that occasionally I was thrown out of the book by phrases being repeated on the same page. But this is a very minor point.
The Ashes of London is such an enjoyable, elegant novel, richly evocative of the time and place. There is hope to confront the despair of the past, represented by London’s rebuild. It’s so good to see characters such as Christopher Wren come and go. The mystery is a really good one but I also liked the way in which Andrew Taylor slowly delves into the lives of his characters, revealing more and more as the novel goes on. It’s a fascinating investigation into an extraordinary time in English history. The Civil War and the Restoration are among my favourite periods of history and this book made me think about them in a whole way. It also made me wonder about what the fire itself would have been like for such a large proportion of London’s population. I love it when historical fiction makes me want to explore further, on foot as well as through books, and The Ashes of London did just that.