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The American Boy: Andrew Taylor

Review by Lizzie Guilfoyle

ANDREW Taylor's The American Boy is an intriguing tale of embezzlement and murder played out in late-Regency England. It's also a love story.

But what makes The American Boy so ingenious is its cleverly interwoven mix of fact and fiction. For the American boy is none other than Edgar Allan Poe who did, indeed, live in England from 1815 - 1820 while his foster father, John Allan, established a British branch of his American import-export business.

Poe also attended the Manor House School in Stoke Newington, under the headmastership of the Reverend John Bransby.

And it's here, at the Manor House School, that Taylor's story begins.

Thomas Shield, an impoverished young man with a chequered past that includes a brief but disastrous military career and a history of mental instability, is the new master at the school - tutor to a young American boy, Edgar Allan, and his best friend, Charles (Charlie) Frant.

But it's to the Frants, part of the Wavenhoe banking family, and to Charlie's mother Sophie in particular, that the young Thomas is drawn.

Then, a brutal crime is committed and Thomas is unwittingly caught in a tangled web of violence, lies and deceit that ultimately, threatens to destroy him.

The book is written in a first- person narrative with events unfolding through the eyes of Shield. So like him, the reader is drawn ever deeper into the Wavenhoe family circle.

At first, the pace is almost leisurely but for good reason. Taylor's meticulous attention to detail paints a vivid and oftimes harsh picture of Regency London. The slums of St Giles and Seven Dials, for instance, are distinctly reminiscent of Dickensian London; the smells cringe-inducing - of raw sewage, unwashed bodies and rotting teeth.

And his characters are as real as you or I. The image of Edgar and Charlie transporting the caged parrot through the streets of London, is an absolute delight.

Just occasionally, the murder seems forgotten, but it's always there, lurking beneath the surface, until three-quarters way through, the pace accelerates and the reader is subjected to Shield's terrifying ordeal, when the truth is finally revealed. But at what cost and perhaps more to the point, what has it to do with the young American boy?

The American Boy is extremely well-written though never heavy-going as Dickens is apt to be. And it's certainly a page-turner. What it isn't, is a good bed-time read, particularly if you're of a nervous disposition. But it comes highly recommended, nonetheless.


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