Friday, June 18, 2010

The Nature of Monsters by Clare Clark

I bought this book a bit by accident. I was having a quick browse around to see if any authors I enjoyed had brought out anything new. Quite a few have, but Susanna Clarke has not. Fortunately for me, Clare Clark, author of The Great Stink which I really loved, had written this. I wasn’t very bothered about the story, since she made the life of a sewer planner quite so very interesting, but at the mention of an apothecary (eee!) I just had to get it. I saw another book by her too, on my way out. It’s no wonder I’m poor, really. THE BLURB!

Sixteen year old Eliza Tally arrives in London with a swollen belly and a mother’s scolding ringing in her ears. There is a man, she’s been assured, who will cleanse her body of her disgrace. Yet when twisted apothecary Grayson Black takes Eliza into his house, he has plans for his charge that have little to do with charity or purity. Instead of helping Eliza dispose of an unwanted child he involves her in a macabre experiment.

Alone and friendless in the shadow of the newly rising dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, Eliza must somehow escape Black’s monstrous clutches. But Black is not a man to be thwarted easily.

This story, like The Great Stink, is set in London, albeit about 150 years prior to Victoria’s reign. If it has to be in London, I suppose it makes a change that Victoria isn’t on the throne. The story does not begin in London, however. It begins up in my neck of the woods- Northumberland, with a sixteen year old girl having a wank. Then she gets pregnant. Time has changed little in these parts, let me tell you. The long and short of it is that she gets sent to an apothecary in London who has apparently promised to ‘sort her out’, so to speak. In a way very much opposite to the way she was sorted out by her gentleman friend. I love apothecaries, so I was just itching to get to this part. She thinks he’s to administer an abortion, but he actually plans to use her in a more experimental capacity. I won’t provide details, I’ve already shared a bit too much.

Much of the book’s intrigue comes from the fact that the apothecary (ee! It’s a fun word even just to type, don’t you think?) and his wife are fucking weirdos. The keep Liza and their other servant, who has Down’s Syndrome, in a state of  ignorance about their apothecary master. They are not permitted to look at him above the shoes. His wife is almost as strange about it as he is. The reason for this is made clear later, but the terror it stirs in Liza as she imagines the possible reasons for being unable to look at his face, is felt just as strongly by the reader. So begins the thriller element of the book. The focus of the story is upon the obsession people had at the time about how the pregnant mother affects the foetus in the womb. It also follows Liza’s pregnancy alongside her relationship with the Down’s Syndrome girl and her master and mistress.
It’s very dark. Apart from her complete abhorrence of the creature growing inside of her, Eliza's circumstances are just terrible. A lot of the story consists of devastating blow after devastating blow. Life was not good for an unmarried pregnant sixteen year old in seventeenth century London. Not good at all. The book is therefore, generally, pretty grim. Not only is she in this dreadful situation but as a woman, has no way to change it on her own. She could get married, but she’s poor and pregnant, who’d bother? Her mother is a midwife but is not allowed to charge for her services because she’s a woman, so leaving her corrupt masters for a different career is not an option either . The only reason I did not give in to crushing depression or swear off my love of apothecaries (nevar!) is because Liza’s hope and determination along with her wonder at the newly erected St Paul’s cathedral and her fierce protection of Mary, the Down’s Syndrome girl, give the book a purpose. It’s getting somewhere, through all the shitty circumstances, so you can get through it too.
There are also monkeys. Two of them ^__^ 

As far as the protagonist, I liked her. She has a distinct personality, which makes the observation of her circumstances far more believable. Her view of London is not one of a grand city, but a small part of a grand city which she never particularly understands. Her view of the world is also not polite. It’s vulgar and gritty and detailed. There are private, truly private, details about her daily life and her troubles and her sex life that are shocking but not put there to shock. It’s very real and very personal, which is what I liked about the whole story.
Some reviews!
Meets the eighteenth century on its own terms: knocks its wig off, twists its private parts and spits in its eye…will draw in fans of Sarah Waters - Hillary Mantel, Guardian
I’ve only ever read Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters but I think in terms of unrelenting detail, sometimes excruciatingly personal ones, they definitely have that in common as writers of historical fiction. So…I disagree with nothing. How uninteresting. NEXT REVIEW.

Chilling, powerful and immensely satisfying. A triumph. Sunday Telegraph 
The first two adjectives are definitely bang on. The ending was sort of strange for me, though. Everything is tied up but we don’t get Eliza’s feelings on most of it. There is one event that understandably dominates her thoughts but her feelings about other important events aren’t spoken of in any detail at all.

Utterly compelling…a wonderfully gruesome gothic tale Metro
I suppose I have a thing with gothic reading recently. I was indeed compelled to read about more gruesome gothic things. Huzzah, Metro. Let’s swear eternal friendship.

The Royal Society, apothecaries, potions, the South Sea Bubble, mountebanks, monkeys and mutants…there was no way I was ever going to put this down Daily Telegraph
That list is fairly comprehensive and I do remember being reluctant to get off at my stop on a few occasions. Bus reading is terrible that way.

A bodice-ripping, action-filled thriller New Statesman 

I’m not sure what this New Statesman chappy read, but he makes this sound very much like a novel it isn’t. I do not remember any ripped bodices or any particularly action-like sequences. It is a thriller, though. For a bit. I guess. I just disagree, okay? Not on the grounds of differing opinions, but because I think it somewhat asinine to agree with an opinion that is apparently on an entirely different subject.

So, this book was fascinating and beautifully detailed and had an apothecary (!), but I didn’t love it. I loved the characters and the protagonists story generally, but the book itself is excellent but really only okay. I have no idea what it is about it, but it didn’t grab me anywhere in particular. I was moved, but I didn’t cry, amused but didn’t laugh, read intense descriptions of sex and my heart didn’t so much as skip. I give it four mell-heads.