Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Great stink

In the sweltering summer of 1858 the stink of sewage from the polluted Thames was so offensive that it drove Members of Parliament from the chamber of the House of Commons. Sewage generated by a population of over two million Londoners was pouring into the river and was being carried to and fro by the tides. The Times called the crisis "The Great Stink". Parliament had to act - drastic measures were required to clean the Thames and to improve London's primitive system of sanitation.

I was going to post a link to some more information about the book I mentioned, The Great Stink of London, in case anyone was curious about this, the smelliest period in history, when I discovered that someone has written a novel about it with a very similar title set in the same era.

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.

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