BOOK REVIEW / Deep waters of disease and danger: 'Sweet Thames' - Matthew Kneale: Sinclair-Stevenson, 14.95

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The title is, of course, ironic. The sweetness is the smell of corruption or, to be more precise, defecation. It is the summer of 1849. On the banks of the river the Palace of Westminster is slowly being rebuilt, but young engineer Joshua Jeavons is concerned with public works of a more fundamental kind: waterworks. Asiatic cholera is stalking the capital, and the Metropolitan Committee for Sewers decides to flush out its crumbling cloacae. Millions of gallons of sewage are sent cascading into the Thames which, for many Londoners, is the only source of drinking water.

The authorities believe that the disease is caused by the Miasma, a cloud of noxious gases. Jeavons, too, labours in a fog of incomprehension. His wife Isabella, the daughter of his employer, will not let him touch her. Poison pen letters blacken her name. He resorts to visiting Katie, a prostitute. In his spare time he toils over a hare-brained scheme to set up a system of Effluent Transformational Depositories which would sell excreta to farmers. By day he dreams of 'a giant cleansing, a renewal'; by night he dreams of knifing virtually everyone he knows.

Then Isabella suddenly disappears, and his desperate search for her takes him through the slums of Seven Dials and the salons of Haymarket cafes. The nadir of his journey is reached in the privy of a rookery where, a victim of the inevitable epidemic, Joshua feels his life leaking away. Against the odds, he survives: 'Truly there is nothing like an attack of Cholera to shake one's notions from their slumber.'

Kneale makes much use of the benefits of hindsight. The action is narrated by Jeavons two years on. Now aged 27 and living in Turin, he views his story as a rite-of-passage, his predicament caused by 'a fever of belief. Symptoms: restless energy, great swelling of self-importance, impaired powers of doubt and reason.' The getting of wisdom takes place on a public level as well - the mutton-chopped men in top hats finally realise that cholera is carried not by air but by water. The narrative is punctuated with letters to the press trumpeting bizarre cures for the disease: olive oil; brandy and chloroform; ice and salt; tongue-pricking and bodily beatings. Death must have come as a relief.

In a couple of afterwords Kneale acknowledges his debt to Henry Mayhew, an early master of vox pop, and sets the record straight regarding his fictional Committee men and their real-life counterparts. If this suggests an unhealthy obsession with his research, the resulting novel has few lumpy bits of undigested information. The final twist, in its perfunctoriness, may seem predictable or gratuitous, but Joshua's progress from pomposity to sympathy is skilfully managed.