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“How sheerly pleasurable it is to sink into a really well-built, expertly handled novel”.

These words of praise are by Adam Roberts, Professor of 19th Century Literature at the Royal Holloway London University. I quote him because I have to agree that this is an astonishingly deep story with a meticulously planned plot. As an English student I majored in the Romantics, and to find a contemporary novel such as this that deals with the canon in a deliciously unique light was an absolute pleasure.
The story itself is about William Heaney, a middle-aged well-mannered man, who is also a dealer in fake first-editions and the author of a number of critically acclaimed poems that he writes for his good-looking gay friend Jaz (and who then passes it off as his own). However, there is one thing about William. He has a dark past, and an even darker gift. He can see demons…

Memoirs of a Master Forger

“I looked back up at the sky, blinking at the lustrous beauty of the ascending and departing demons.
They formed an alphabet I was beginning to learn to read.
They were fire in the sky.”

William is, in fact, a bit of a demonologist. He is a connoisseur on demons almost as much as he on the wine that he’s so hopelessly addicted to. And it is with his slightly academic slant on these evil beings that the story begins. This is a humorous account of Heaney’s life, his regrets and most of all, the painful sacrifices he has had to make along the way. Another interesting tidbit, the author, isn’t William Heaney, but a guy called Graham Joyce (of which I hope to read more of later on!)

Coming to the meat and bones of the story itself, it’s a lot more than meets the eye. Joyce has created a story that condenses and pays tribute to a patchwork of London’s past and present ghosts, it’s a commentary on the legacy of that great phoenix-like city that has burned down many times, only to rise from its’ ashes again and again (as Peter Ackroyd would put it). This multi-stranded narrative uses the theme of demons to open up a subterranean gateway to the London’s colourful literary past. In fact, Heaney says right at the beginning about there being a demon of ‘annotations and footnotes’ and that he won’t bother backing up everything he says. Well this is an early indicator that the book itself references to many Romantic poems and poets, and since London is the cradle and inspiration for it, I think Blake’s poem ‘London’ best explains what Joyce tried to do here:

“I wander through each chartered street,
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
And every mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every man,
In every infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forged manacles I hear.

How the chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every black’ning church appals,
And the hapless soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down palace walls.

But most through midnight streets I hear
How the youthful harlot’s curse
Blasts the newborn infant’s tear,
And blights with plagues the marriage hearse.”
William Blake ‘Songs of Experience’

Joyce does ‘charter’ the streets of London very well… in fact pubs are the chosen settings for exploring the ghosts of the capital, and the writers that immortalised it. For instance, I loved how a trendy wine bar transformed into a more sinister setting once I discovered that its cellar still held the bones of Tom Paine, the legendary author of ‘The Rights of Man’. Williams cursed gift of seeing demons also emulates Blakes ‘eidetic’ tendency to ‘see’ angels and other fantastical beings. The fact that he can see demons also means that every stranger he meets, he is doomed to see their secret marks of weakness and woe.

Of course, the ghosts of yore do not end here. Like Dante’s depiction of the seven layers of hell, Joyce does his utmost to provide the reader with something meatier to get their teeth into. This comes in the form of Anna, the former drug-addict/ prostitute (or the harlot in the poem above) and Seamus the homeless ex-soldier who suffers from his own special brand of shell-shock and battle trauma (Blake’s ‘hapless soldier’ who chains himself to the gates of Buckingham Palace with a few pounds of C4). In fact I honestly believe these characters are the ones that steal the show and keep the reader well and truly salivating right up until the last glorious page.

After I finished this book, I had a deep urge to go back and read it again. It holds much more than I could decipher, and there were such lovely moments of prose that I wanted to re-live them again. I also loved the way Joyce manage to graft some of the well-known poems of Blake ‘The Sick Rose‘ and ‘The Chimney Sweeper‘ into the background and had characters re-enact moments from them. I could probably spend hours talking about the different poems that were alluded to, and the various poets that were referenced either directly or indirectly, but I don’t want to bore people. And I’d rather give other people the chance to discover it for themselves.

I give Memoirs of a Master Forger‘ 5/5. I haven’t read a satisfying book like this in a long while. They are few and far between. Highly recommended.