three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
20-Jan-Feb-2006
By: 
Clare Clark
user_rating: 
0

A Novel of Corruption and Murder Beneath the Streets of Victorian London

A-GreatStinkIt’s the golden rule of governance: all politics are local. So when an 1858 heat wave transformed the Thames River into an olfactory nightmare right under Parliament’s nose, it was time to solve the London sewer problem. William May, returned from the battlefields of Crimea, is enlisted as an engineer, but he finds the rank sewers can’t overpower the haunting memories of the Crimean War. Somewhere among the same tunnels, Long Arm Tom makes his living scavenging from dead bodies and supplying rats for dogfights. Their two lives intersect when a murder in the sewer finds May accused and Tom holding information that might save the engineer’s reputation—and his life.
Harcourt. 368 pages. $25. ISBN: 0151011613

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"The Great Stink is a crackerjack historical novel that combines the creepy intrigue of Caleb Carr, the sensory overload of Peter Ackroyd and the academic curiosity of A. S. Byatt. Clark gives us a ripely Dickensian London (in the manner of Our Mutual Friend) on the brink of modernity, where the taverns retain their medieval clamor, the asylums are glorified dungeons, and public hangings are cathartic spectacles." Mark Rozzo

Intl Herald Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Clark’s triumph is that she makes us see and smell everything we politely pretend not to, and she even manages to give the miasma its own kind of beauty." Susann Cokal

Newsday 3.5 of 5 Stars
"It’s a sign of The Great Stink’s intelligence and richness that a potent irony glimmers ever more strongly while Clark limns this social panorama. As the shrewd Long Arm Tom points out: Whether highborn or lowborn, every Londoner is contributing to that incessant flow of waste matter." Celia Wren

Philadelphia Inquirer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The plot is a little too tidy to be truly satisfying, but Clark displays a natural flair for characterization and the ability to make the past immediate and tangible. One does not so much read The Great Stink as smell, hear, and taste it." Susan McCallum-Smith

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Clark can explain everything about the 80 miles of London sewer tunnels from elevation vectors to brick density, but she also knows how to hyperventilate the gothic horror of this subterranean world, soaring into fits of narrative excess that recall the strange pleasure of reading Edgar Allan Poe." Ron Charles

Christian Science Monitor 2 of 5 Stars
"Critics like to throw the adjective ‘Dickensian’ around to mean dark and depressing, but Dickens also possessed a broad romantic streak and a lively sense of humor. That feeling of uplift is pretty much absent from Clark’s narrative, which is as dank and narrow as the passageways it follows." Yvonne Zipp

Independent (UK) 2 of 5 Stars
"[T]he real star of the book: London’s rotting labyrinth of sewers. These tunnels writhe. They dance with carpets of vermin and, remarkably, the author manages to imbue them with real romance. This is an achievement." Patrick Hussey

Critical Summary

The critical establishment is awash in second-grade (and second-rate) puns! Maybe they just can’t help themselves; in The Great Stink, her debut novel, Clark turns the London sewer system into a character that is as engaging as her humans. The book wears its influences (can we hear another Dickensian?!) and research (Clark is a former history student) on its sleeve. The result, despite a largely predictable plot, pleases the balance of reviewers, most of whom see a lot of promise in Clark. And give the young author credit: there is bravery in a first-time novelist setting her work in a sewer. Imagine the puns the critics would have emerged with if the book had really stunk.