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The Great Stink Hardcover – October 3, 2005

3.7 out of 5 stars 54 customer reviews

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Julian Fellowes's Belgravia by Julian Fellowes
"Julian Fellowes's Belgravia" by Julian Fellowes
From the creator and writer of Downton Abbey comes a grand historical novel, with hugely exciting twists and dramatic chapter endings. Learn more | See author page
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Dickens fans should devour British author Clark's debut novel, a gripping and richly atmospheric glimpse into the literal underworld of Victorian England—the labyrinthine London sewer system. When the "great stink" of the title—the product of an oppressive heat wave combined with putrid sewage overflow—threatens to shut down the British capital in 1855, the politicians agree to fund massive repairs. That immense public works project is a natural magnet for the corrupt, and engineer William May, a psychologically scarred Crimean War veteran, soon finds his ethics challenged. When he courageously decides not to rubber-stamp the use of inferior brick, he puts his life, his sanity and his family at risk. May's vague recollection of a murder he may have witnessed in the depths of the sewer system results in his becoming the prime suspect and being incarcerated in an asylum. That the mystery's eventual resolution depends a bit too much on a deus ex machina in no way detracts from Clark's considerable achievement in bringing her chosen slice of Victoriana to life. She shows every evidence of being a gifted and sensitive writer in the same league as such historical novelists as Charles Palliser.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Harcourt (October 3, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0151011613
  • ISBN-13: 978-0151011612
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.5 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (54 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #920,625 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Luan Gaines HALL OF FAMEVINE VOICE on September 30, 2005
Format: Hardcover
William Henry May, mapmaker and surveyor, joins England's battle against the Russians in the Crimean War, but is wounded and consigned to a filthy hospital ship, where he languishes almost unto death. Given to unaccountable rages and despair, May never imagines he will survive to be recalled to London. He has frozen into uncaring acceptance of his predicament, but recovers the will to live, the raw emotion so painful that he begins to cut himself, the self-mutilation a relief for his overburdened mental state.

When May is hired in the rebuilding project of the London sewers, a huge and expensive undertaking, his prospects have changed radically for the better. Married, with one son and a baby on the way, William is a changed man, but still tormented by nightmares, unhinged by his experiences in the war. William, nicknamed "The Sultan of the Sewers", continues to disintegrate in this dark hell, where his psyche finds peace only in cutting, his wife purposefully oblivious to her husband's suffering. This is the landscape of 1880's London, with little opportunity for advancement, men desperate to carve out a niche that will keep their families from starvation.

As gruesome and as poverty riddled as any Dickensian tale, this novel exposes the indigenous city poverty, personified by the denizens of the sewers, those who make a scant living collecting the mud-encrusted detritus of others. Vast numbers of poor people create income from the even the filthiest refuse, bought and sold for profit. The great rotting underground sewers are a metaphor for the class distinctions that leave the destitute to wallow in the most extreme conditions, soothed by cheap gin, while the Fancy, the rich, indulge in betting to alleviate their boredom, visiting the slums for sport.
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Format: Hardcover
I am giving this book 5 stars, because I found the story and the history of the London sewers so fascinating. I appreciate wonderful fiction that educates me as well as entertains.

Summary, no spoilers:

The is the story of William May, a soldier from the Crimean War.

May has been psychologically damaged from that war, and the horrible treatment he received at the hospital afterwards.

He is married to a very sweet, optimistic woman, but it's is hard for her to keep her mental and emotional balance with someone as severely disturbed and depressed as William.

William, back from the war, is now a surveyor who is assigned the task of helping to redo the decrepit sewer system under the streets of London.

The story features the sights (and SMELLS!) of this amazing underground world, and the book features assorted sundry characters and a murder to boot.

I guarantee you will learn a lot reading this book. And if you are like me, you will find the first 4/5 so depressing, that you may want to consider a Prozac drip.

Saying that, when I was done with the book I was glad I had read it.

I applaud the effort and research that went into this book.

It is not a fast read, but a worthwhile one.
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Format: Hardcover
There's no doubt Clare Clark modeled THE GREAT STINK after Dickens. Readers will be surprised at how well she succeeded.

Clark's acknowledgments tell us quite a bit about how she planned her novel and where she got the title. One of her sources was THE GREAT STINK OF LONDON by Stephen Halliday about the great engineer Joseph Bazalgette's attempt to completely overhaul the sewers of London. Another, Marilee Strong's study of self-injury, A BRIGHT RED SCREAM, provided motivation for one of the novel's main characters, William May. A primary source, LONDON LABOUR AND THE LONDON POOR, gave credibility to her other main character, Long Arm Tom.

The story starts when a Russian soldier bayonets William May during the Crimean War. Robert Rawlinson, who was in charge of sanitary reforms during the war, took an interest in May and helped get him a job as a surveyor working on the Bazalgette's sewer project. The problem was that May was suffering from what sounds like battle fatigue or clinical depression. He began to cut himself to drive away the dark moods, and he used the sewers to do it. Despite his affliction, William May is a highly principled young man, and when a senior engineer solicits a bribe from one of the brick makers, May refuses to go along. The senior engineer sets out to ruin him.

Clark shifts back and forth between May's dilemma and that of Long Arm Tom whose vocation will definitely remind you of Dickens. Long Arm Tom is a rat catcher. He sells them for a penny a piece to gin joints where "Fancies" bet on how many rats a ratter (a dog) can kill in two minutes. Tom adopts one of these ratters when her owner dies. She's one of the best ratters in the history of the sport. The fact that Tom makes a living in the sewer provides a tie to William May.
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Format: Hardcover
I didn't care for THE GREAT STINK, but not for the reasons many other readers here have given. I couldn't even finish it. I found the description fascinating. The author was masterful with description, a fine talent. And the characters were interesting. But oh, pleeeease, SO MUCH narrative and not nearly enough dialogue. The author only told us what was going on and rarely showed it. We were walked through what could have been truly engaging and interesting chapters, like being rushed through a guided tour. Delineated scenes were scant. Unless the book got better after page 90--when I gave up--I'm not sure what the hoopla is all about.
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