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The Great Stink by Clare Clark

The Great Stink (original 2005; edition 2006)

by Clare Clark

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5871916,791 (3.35)51
Title:The Great Stink
Authors:Clare Clark
Info:Mariner Books (2006), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 372 pages
Collections:Your library, Historical fiction, Lost
Tags:Victorian era, fiction set in London

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The Great Stink by Clare Clark (2005)


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English (18)  German (1)  All languages (19)
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William May returns to England after having served in the Crimea and starts to work as a surveyor for the Metropolitan Board of Works, charged with the construction of a modern sewer system for London. Haunted by his own demons, he retreats to the underground tunnels where he feels safe and commits terrible acts of self-harm. Declared insane and framed for murder, it falls to a young, inexperienced lawyer to exonerate him.

From the first page the reader is thrown headlong into the secret world of the sewers of London with descriptions that bring the nauseating, claustrophobic conditions alive. Also within the first chapter, we are exposed to William's secret of deliberately cutting himself to extinguish the memories of the war and the appalling conditions in the field hospital in Scutari. Personally, I found these passages quite harrowing to read but they set the scene for the rest of the novel and if you can stomach the often graphic descriptions of the filth, squalor and gore both below and above ground, you will be rewarded with a novel that will open your eyes to the terrible living conditions during that time of Victorian England and you will never read another historical novel again without remembering the vision, ingenuity and determination of Joseph Bazalgette.

Meticulously researched and with wonderfully descriptive, evocative prose, Clare Clark's debut novel is astonishingly assured and its characters entirely believable and real, even though I found the appearance of the lawyer resembling a little bit too much a caricature straight out of Dickens. Don't expect this to be a historical murder mystery novel like I did when I picked it up; the first time you learn that there has even been a murder is on page 168, almost halfway through the novel, and it was not difficult to guess the identity of the murderer; I think the synopsis on the front cover is slightly misleading because I don't think that Clare Clark had intended to write that sort of book. In my opinion the novel is too bogged down with detail in places and would have benefited from some judicious editing but it was certainly time well spent, a valuable history lesson and I'm sure you will agree that you'll never read another novel like this again. ( )
1 vote passion4reading | Jul 16, 2012 |
I really enjoyed this book set in the sewers of Victorian England. William May is a damaged man, wounded in the Crimean war and suffering from Shell Shock he is driven to the brink of insanity and manages to bring himself back from it, but only just. He comes home and obtains a job with the department of Sewers. His job is to survey the sewers under Londons' metropolis and this he does diligently, but he also uses the tunnels to "cut" himself to help him cope with life.
Another character is Long Arm Tom a man who makes his living from the sewers collecting rats for the dogs to kill in the "fancy", and anything else of value along the way.
These two characters are inter- twined within the story and come together when a murder is commited and William is arrested for it. He is very fragile and has terrible nightmares about the war leaving him a wreck of a man, he is thrown into an asylum with his ramblings. From there he has to clear his name and save his sanity, his marriage and his life.. Here enters Sydney Rose, a quite unassuming young lawyer who tries to do just that, although a timid man having to deal with London's low life.
The book is atmospheric and quite captavating in the sense that you want to see how it pans out. Maybe not everyones cup of tea! but I enjoyed it! ( )
1 vote Glorybe1 | Oct 2, 2010 |
A sympathetic but flawed protagonist, a good mystery plot and a fascinating setting. Clark is a very good writer as well, and some of her paragraphs reward repeated reading just for their sheer artistry.
1 vote murraystone | Sep 7, 2010 |
It was plodding, and at times the plot was unrealistic. It certainly gave a good feeling for the place and time, even though that place was inside the sewers of Victorian London (hence the title). ( )
  maedb | May 19, 2010 |
The title says it all - it stunk. I read about the first chapter and it was lucky I got that far. Maybe I'm missing something but it definately reeked.

Back Cover Blurb:
Through the city sewers walks surveyor and ex-soldier William May, just back from the horrifying brutality of the Crimean front and hiding from his own demons in the darkness beneath the capital's streets. But when May stumbles across a body in the tunnels, his discovery draws him into a maelstrom of underworld corruption that drags both himself and those closest to him further into depths from which there may be no possiblity of light - or return..... ( )
  mazda502001 | Mar 21, 2010 |
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Where the channel snaked to the right it was no longer possible to stand upright, despite the abrupt drop in the gradient.
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Haiku summary
William May: Crimea
Veteran. Haunted, he seeks
Refuge in sewers.

Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0156030888, Paperback)

It takes a world of confidence to name your debut novel The Great Stink, and to set it in a sewer. Not even a modern sewer--charmless though that may be--but the crumbling, cholera-laden, rat-infested, fungus-rich sewers of London in the mid-Victorian period, from which pockets of deadly gas frequently burbled to the surface. Clare Clark's unsavory but completely absorbing first novel is a Dantean tour of this reeking underworld and its denizens: both the scavengers--human and animal--and the reformers, who brave the tunnels in the service of public hygiene and social progress after the 1858 Act of Parliament that called for the rebuilding of the sewer system.

The Great Stink juxtaposes two darknesses, both embodied in the filthy tunnels: the lawless desperation of the very poor, and the despair of madness. One of the junior engineers most useful in mapping the existing sewer is William May, a studious, methodical veteran of the Crimean War who manages to conceal from everyone but his wife the horrors he brought out of battle with him. The tunnels don't frighten William; they provide isolation and silence for the bloody rites that keep the Mr. Hyde in him at bay. It seems only a matter of time before William's self-destruction turns outward. Long Arm Tom, his counterpart among the poor, is a "tosher." He enters the tunnels illegally, scraping the sludge for coins or other booty, and trapping hundreds of rats for fighting against dogs at local taverns (all the rage for sporting gentlemen since dog fights have been outlawed). Kindness is a liability in Tom's world, but two acts of pity--one toward a dog, and one, more grudgingly, toward William--provide the resistance that changes the course of this otherwise relentlessly dire story.

The very weak-stomached may need a cup of mint tea or a bowl of potpourri beside them as they wade through the sewer with Tom and William. Clark has spared readers none of the stink, nor the sharp pleasures of suspense. --­Regina Marler

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:48 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

Returning home from the battlefields of 1855 Crimea, William May struggles to recover from his experiences by working on London's new sewer system, a job that is compromised by a murder accusation that strains his tenuous hold on sanity.

(summary from another edition)

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