Thursday, October 18, 2007


I can't help but wonder what the draw is of pre-Industrial London; writers seem to really rejoice in its squalor. Perhaps it is an especially fascinating setting and/or topic because modern audiences tremble at the idea that the streets of London, now considered by some (although I'm not going to broach this subject) to be among the most civilized cities in the world, were once full of beggars, thieves, whores, corpses, rapists, thugs, and murderers. Not to mention that they used to stink.

At any rate, Clare Clark has done the rejoicing in the London squalor aspect of this novel very well. She has imagined Eliza Tally's miseries from floorboard to attic: the daily grind is quantified in detailed depression, sexual abuse, physical degradation, psychological victimization, and boredom, all under the looming shadow of Saint Paul's cathedral, which the author claims as a centerpiece of her work. Clark creates a very real world of day-to-day terror as she describes two years in the life of a teenage girl who is preyed upon by everyone around her.

Eliza Tally (whose name is rarely mentioned in the book), a spunky but largely uneducated village bumpkin, is shipped to London in the winter of 1718 by her mother, who has sold Eliza for four guineas after her plot to manipulate Eliza into a financially advantageous marriage has ended in nothing but an illegitimate pregnancy and a muffled village scandal. An apothecary named Grayson Black has been generously compensated by the baby's father's family to take Eliza on and hide her in his house as a maid. Pregnant Eliza finds herself a de facto prisoner of the Blacks, who are wrapped up in a secret world for which the apothecary business is only a semi-functional front. Apothecary Black, who aspires to be the next Harvey, has a thesis he is bent on proving: that the emotional predilections of a mother are indelibly imprinted on her unborn fetus. Needless to say Black will do anything he needs to to cull supporting data.

The novel is unobtrusively rich in careful detail, but unfortunately Clark doesn't pull her plot together as masterfully as her backdrop. The book drags the whole way through and the afterthought-esque conclusion is tacked on very carelessly. And while Clark's prose is, for the most part, very nice, her language ranges to the rather overly colorful and some passages (among the most egregious is the birth scene) read as though a junior high school student was allowed too long with her thesaurus. Clark has created a wonderfully real world but falls a little short of using it as a successful vehicle for her story. The car is nice but it doesn't go anywhere.


Ello said...

Purple prose? Village bumpkin? Love this review! It did a good job of making me interested in taking a look at the book myself but being aware that it probably has shortcomings.

moonrat said...

it really is well written--i think the reason i felt negatively about it was because i expected more from it, perhaps because the writing was good.

but i would also say if you're emotionally tied to london in any way you should read it.

cyn said...

as much as i love london, the industrail revolution period just holds no interest for me. give me the renaissance any day. the book also sound "depressing" and dark? i feel the same way about books as i do movies, no matter how well made, i still have preferences as to what type of book i like to read.

this wouldn't be one i'd be interested in. what made you pick it up, mr?

cyn said...

i also agree with ello, a great review!

moonrat said...

i read it because i got a galley in the mail as one of these editorial distribution things. that means harcourt was planning on making a big deal out of it--ragged pages and textured galley cover, etc; pretty swanky.

i was also attracted to the cover image, and the whole opening was very smoky and alluring. but yeah, cyn, it was definitely dark, through and through.

for me, the darkness was a better aspect--i tend to like quite dark books. but i know (very well) why/how some readers prefer happy escapism, not bleak escapism!!

Church Lady said...

I agree, great review!

I was also intrigued by this line: the emotional predilections of a mother are indelibly imprinted on her unborn fetus
--That statement holds a lot of stories.
I'll probably read this one too. Thanks for the rec!