Excrement happens in this impressively researched first novel, which earned its London author an Orange Fiction Prize nomination.
It’s a faux-Victorian melodrama, akin to such recent successes as Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White and Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith. Clark sets her darkly confrontational story in mid-1850s London, where William May, a severely traumatized Crimean War veteran, begins work as a surveyor for master engineer Joseph Bazalgette, who has been charged with renovating and sanitizing the city’s notoriously malodorous and pestiferous sewers. Relying heavily on period historical sources (notably, Henry Mayhew’s classic sociological study London Labour and the London Poor), Clark creates a graphically detailed vision of this hell just beneath earth. It’s a limbo in which the increasingly unsettled May slashes and mutilates himself, and where the novel’s most interesting character, “tosher” Long Arm Tom, patrols the fetid depths accompanied by his beloved dog Lady, scavenging for lost valuables and catching rats to be used as prey in the dogfights that are staged in London’s grubbiest watering holes. As long as Long Arm Tom is present, the novel entices and persuades with horrific naturalistic force. Its central plot—involving a murder in which May is a suspect, the malevolent machinations of his antagonist Mr. Hawke, the prison ship (itself a floating sewer) on which May is incarcerated and the young lawyer who arrives late in the story, and rights all wrongs—is, alas, another story: a peculiarly clichéd and uninteresting one. Clark’s plot would indeed be her novel’s undoing were it not for the genuine skill with which she rubs our noses in its ghastly ambiance, and for the wonderful Long Arm Tom, who might have enjoyed quaffing ale and swapping horror stories with Dickens’s immortal Bill Sykes.
Significantly flawed, but very much worth reading.