The Great Stink, by Clare Clark

The psycho versus the sewer: who's the real star of this book?
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The Independent Culture

What is it about excrement? Ever since Joyce posed Bloom with that newspaper, sniffing the blossom of his bowels, it has become a lazy shorthand for realism, and that is certainly the case in Clare Clark's first novel. Must we lovingly sample each of the million turds that float by in The Great Stink? Clark seems to think so, so be prepared: this book is absolutely full of crap.

What is it about excrement? Ever since Joyce posed Bloom with that newspaper, sniffing the blossom of his bowels, it has become a lazy shorthand for realism, and that is certainly the case in Clare Clark's first novel. Must we lovingly sample each of the million turds that float by in The Great Stink? Clark seems to think so, so be prepared: this book is absolutely full of crap.

Just after the Crimean war, William May is left for dead by a Russian bayonet. He somehow survives filthy hospitals and returns to London to take a plum job on Bazalgette's task force, surveying and rectifying London's sewers.

William is somehow adrift on Clark's dank set. He turns to self-harm; he cuts and he cuts and he doesn't stop. He is impotent, he cannot connect with his earthy wife and he is haunted. The only way to rectify this distress, it seems, is to rush into the tunnels he surveys and slash himself silly.

There is some powerful writing here - "He cut again, deeper this time, and found himself filled with a calm at once peaceful yet exultant. Blood gushed from the long gashes, spilling on to the rag on his lap. It was warm, real, wonderful" - but the pathos is too often lost in Clark's over-enthusiasm for the material. You can almost hear her thinking: "It's only page five and I've got a noble psycho up to his knees in sewage and slicing himself rotten!"

The character's detail - love of his wife and a receding tenderness for life itself - is barely filled in. May never becomes anything more than a literary porn star, servicing an ecstatic author. Far more satisfying is the book's supporting character, Long Arm Tom.

Tom is a "tosher"; a man who gouges a half-legal living from the sewers, catching rats and selling bodies. Although clichéd (he can't read but he's wise, he's tough but he loves his dog), he is a pleasure to know as he takes us through the tourist trail sleaze of Victorian London. (To the left, guv'nor, a child whore; to the right, some nasty men!) Through Tom we witness ghettos and oozing taverns, all handled more convincingly than May's adolescent descent into madness.

The likeable Tom dominates the book; he is a genuine solid in a novel of ciphers. May's wife, the baddie Mr Hawke and, of course, May himself, aren't well described enough to compete with Tom or the 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. The half-formed plot Clark attempts to weave between May and Tom is not.

May is implicated in financial skulduggery and murder. Enter a young lawyer so extraneous and late in the book you can almost see the editor shoving him out of the wings. The lad takes up May's cause and, 50 pages and a Secret Seven climax later, good triumphs.

Although ultimately a book that disappointed, The Great Stink is intensely readable. Clark has talent and passion and once or twice they collide. Her next book could be special; but the creaky plot and under-developed characters see her debut fall rather flat between those million stools.

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