The Great Stink Paperback – Oct 2 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Dickens fans should devour British author Clark's debut novel, a gripping and richly atmospheric glimpse into the literal underworld of Victorian England—the labyrinthine London sewer system. When the "great stink" of the title—the product of an oppressive heat wave combined with putrid sewage overflow—threatens to shut down the British capital in 1855, the politicians agree to fund massive repairs. That immense public works project is a natural magnet for the corrupt, and engineer William May, a psychologically scarred Crimean War veteran, soon finds his ethics challenged. When he courageously decides not to rubber-stamp the use of inferior brick, he puts his life, his sanity and his family at risk. May's vague recollection of a murder he may have witnessed in the depths of the sewer system results in his becoming the prime suspect and being incarcerated in an asylum. That the mystery's eventual resolution depends a bit too much on a deus ex machina in no way detracts from Clark's considerable achievement in bringing her chosen slice of Victoriana to life. She shows every evidence of being a gifted and sensitive writer in the same league as such historical novelists as Charles Palliser.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Despite its unappealing title, this promising debut novel from newcomer Clark should whet the appetites of historical fiction fans who like a crackling good mystery thrown into the mix. When engineer William May, an emotionally fragile Crimean War veteran, descends into the noxious sewers of mid-Victorian London to assess the feasibility of the massive sewer repairs prompted by the cholera epidemic of 1855, he experiences a measure of psychological relief after he begins cutting himself in the putrid privacy of the dangerously crumbling sewage tunnels. As his tenuous mental equilibrium begins to slip, he is framed for a brutal underground murder and eventually begins to doubt his own innocence. With both his life and his sanity on the line, he must rely on self--proclaimed sewer-rat Long-Arm Tom to unravel an intricate web of deceit and corruption to clear his good name. Clark's meticulous research provides a firm foundation for this fascinating fictional foray into one of the most monumental construction and engineering projects of the fledgling industrial age. Margaret Flanagan
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Top Customer Reviews
Add to the mix a gritty portrayal of life amongst the London poor, the very real events of 'The Great Stink' in 1855 (which ultimately led to the rebuiding of London's sewers) and the stage is set for an interesting novel.
Warning: William May's self destructive tendencies will be very confronting for many. The description, which lends it authenticity, is not for the faint-hearted. Many of us will recognise it and understand it immediately.
I would not recommend this book to the squeamish. I would recommend it to those who like some factual underpinning for their fiction and who seek to descend into the Victorian underworld.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
When May is hired in the rebuilding project of the London sewers, a huge and expensive undertaking, his prospects have changed radically for the better. Married, with one son and a baby on the way, William is a changed man, but still tormented by nightmares, unhinged by his experiences in the war. William, nicknamed "The Sultan of the Sewers", continues to disintegrate in this dark hell, where his psyche finds peace only in cutting, his wife purposefully oblivious to her husband's suffering. This is the landscape of 1880's London, with little opportunity for advancement, men desperate to carve out a niche that will keep their families from starvation.
As gruesome and as poverty riddled as any Dickensian tale, this novel exposes the indigenous city poverty, personified by the denizens of the sewers, those who make a scant living collecting the mud-encrusted detritus of others. Vast numbers of poor people create income from the even the filthiest refuse, bought and sold for profit. The great rotting underground sewers are a metaphor for the class distinctions that leave the destitute to wallow in the most extreme conditions, soothed by cheap gin, while the Fancy, the rich, indulge in betting to alleviate their boredom, visiting the slums for sport. Even the bureaucracy is corrupt, the sewer project approved, while the funds are withheld by a bickering Parliament.
As the project progresses, the sewers become less navigable, the flushers left to ever more ingenious ways in and out. Under the threat of exposure, agents supplying bricks attempt to force May to accept substandard materials, especially Alfred England, whose bricks have been contracted by May's superior. The stress of constant threats to his family should he not agree to the illegal contracts drive May deeper into the chaos of his own mind, thoughts of death and war merging with everyday reality. Indeed, in the face of murder, who better to blame than the insane, self-mutilating William May?
With remarkable detail that requires a strong constitution, the author reveals the complex underpinnings of city management and graft. In a complex blend of murder, greed and madness, the London bureaucracy ripe for plundering by privateers, the protagonist becomes the unwitting victim of greedy villains. In this unhealthy mix, all are caught in the rude stew of city waste, men with their own personal demons and small enjoyments. Not an easy book to read, with its unflinching detail, The Great Stink is a timely reminder of the skeleton that must be maintained, a framework for civilization, where opportunity offers freedom from a life of discontent and distorted appetites. Luan Gaines/2005
Summary, no spoilers:
The is the story of William May, a soldier from the Crimean War.
May has been psychologically damaged from that war, and the horrible treatment he received at the hospital afterwards.
He is married to a very sweet, optimistic woman, but it's is hard for her to keep her mental and emotional balance with someone as severely disturbed and depressed as William.
William, back from the war, is now a surveyor who is assigned the task of helping to redo the decrepit sewer system under the streets of London.
The story features the sights (and SMELLS!) of this amazing underground world, and the book features assorted sundry characters and a murder to boot.
I guarantee you will learn a lot reading this book. And if you are like me, you will find the first 4/5 so depressing, that you may want to consider a Prozac drip.
Saying that, when I was done with the book I was glad I had read it.
I applaud the effort and research that went into this book.
It is not a fast read, but a worthwhile one.
Clark's acknowledgments tell us quite a bit about how she planned her novel and where she got the title. One of her sources was THE GREAT STINK OF LONDON by Stephen Halliday about the great engineer Joseph Bazalgette's attempt to completely overhaul the sewers of London. Another, Marilee Strong's study of self-injury, A BRIGHT RED SCREAM, provided motivation for one of the novel's main characters, William May. A primary source, LONDON LABOUR AND THE LONDON POOR, gave credibility to her other main character, Long Arm Tom.
The story starts when a Russian soldier bayonets William May during the Crimean War. Robert Rawlinson, who was in charge of sanitary reforms during the war, took an interest in May and helped get him a job as a surveyor working on the Bazalgette's sewer project. The problem was that May was suffering from what sounds like battle fatigue or clinical depression. He began to cut himself to drive away the dark moods, and he used the sewers to do it. Despite his affliction, William May is a highly principled young man, and when a senior engineer solicits a bribe from one of the brick makers, May refuses to go along. The senior engineer sets out to ruin him.
Clark shifts back and forth between May's dilemma and that of Long Arm Tom whose vocation will definitely remind you of Dickens. Long Arm Tom is a rat catcher. He sells them for a penny a piece to gin joints where "Fancies" bet on how many rats a ratter (a dog) can kill in two minutes. Tom adopts one of these ratters when her owner dies. She's one of the best ratters in the history of the sport. The fact that Tom makes a living in the sewer provides a tie to William May. Another Dickens character is the lawyer who takes William May's case when he is arrested for murder. Watch what she does with this guy's hands; she learned from the master.
The scatological descriptions and the emphasis on cutting will bother some, but if you can get past this, this is a really entertaining read. You're never quite sure if William May will make it. Long Arm Tom and his dog Lady add a certain amount of warmth to a sometimes brutal novel.
Worse, I found it impossible to feel for the protagonist, William May, because Clark fails to bring him to life. He's nothing but a case study; she doesn't do an adequate job of building him as a character before and separate from his psychological problems. "When he's in his right mind, he likes to do botanical drawings" does not a convincing human being make.
As another reviewer mentioned, the only character I was taken with was the dog.