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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Book Review: The Nature of Monsters by Clare Clark

Clare Clark is the author of two very fine novels, both of which deal with elements of the underground and unsavoury human behaviour. Her first novel The Great Stink is set in Victorian England, more specifically in the labyrinthine London sewer system. Hence the great stink. But Clare’s writing far from stinks, it is tight and interesting.

Yes, The Great Stink is a historical novel, but not one with a familiar setting. The Great Stink deals with a sewer engineer, William May, and the solstice his finds in cutting himself in the solitude of the sewers. That is until a murder is committed in the underground and he is implicated.

See what I mean? Underground and unsavoury.

Don’t be dismayed by the setting though, the details of the sewer structures, their repairs and the times of Victorian England are in perfect harmony with the strange and complex story of William May.

Not only do I highly recommend The Great Stink, I’m a fan of Clare’s latest novel, The Nature of Monsters.

In 1718, pregnant Eliza Tally is packed off to London. She is to work as a maid for apothecary Grayson Black, have the child or get rid of it, and do so while protecting the perception of her own virtue and the good name of the father of the child. What transpires instead is a tragic and twisted tale of scientific experimentation on mothers and unborn children. Eliza and a second maid, Mary, are psychologically tortured by the apothecary and his wife in hopes that they will bear monsters instead of healthy babies.

Eighteenth-century England is a time of deep interest in science, medicine and literature, but it is also a time of home remedies and superstitions. A pregnant woman caught in a fire can expect her child to be born with a red birthmark. If a hare runs across a pregnant woman’s path she can expect the child to be marked by the animal—perhaps it was a hare that created half-moon Mary.

Half-there or not, Mary charms Eliza, who discovers the apothecary’s goal and is driven to save Mary. It is too late for her own child.

Both novels are visceral. There is the putrid smell of the sewers in The Great Stink, the descriptions of cutting and the horrors of murder. In The Nature of Monsters it is the monsters of the novel—Grayson Black, his wife and the apothecary’s assistant, along with Eliza’s lover and her mother—who act as monsters. Betrayal and sacrifice for science are the elements of horror here.

Most horrifying to the reader are the descriptions of leeching, bleeding and opium use, which are counter to our modern-day understanding of medicine. We have 250 more years of discovery under our belt, and yet it is the many scientists of this time whose experiments inform today’s understanding of the mind and body. So it is the readers’ good fortune to have such an adept storyteller and historian weaving the tale of Eliza and Mary with the medical curiosities of the day.

I am a fan of Clare Clark. Both novels are great and I truly think readers of The Great Stink should seek out The Nature of Monsters and vice versa. My only caveat for newbies to Clare’s work is to be prepared for the world she transports you to, it is inevitably underground and unsavoury, in the best of ways.

oooh, ooh, do you still have these? can i read them? i love leeches!

I have The Nature of Monsters, you are definitely welcome to read it. Great Stink was published a couple of years ago and I don’t have it anymore but I bet it’s in the library.

Susie - I’m sure we can talk review copies. Monique can put you in touch!


I’ve just put an excerpt of The Nature of Monsters on the Raincoast blog for your reading pleasure!:


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