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Friday, December 30, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM


Book Reviews

Stories carry readers to the edge

Seattle Times book critic

Extremes, whether of sensibility or situation, often make worthy ground for fiction to explore. The debut novels here all excel in taking readers into realms far from the ordinary.

"The Great Stink"
by Clare Clark
Harcourt, 356 pp., $25

An underground London labyrinth — the city's decaying sewer system in the 1850s — is the star of British writer Clare Clark's striking first novel. Readers of delicate sensibility may have trouble handling a subterranean world that is equal parts septic stench and criminal refuge — but Clark makes the most of her unusual setting.

"The Great Stink" offers two gradually connecting narratives — one about sewer-surveyor and traumatized Crimean War veteran William Hay, trying to regain a measure of normality in his life; the other about a wily, illiterate sewer scavenger, Long Arm Tom, and his beloved rat-killing showdog, a mutt named Lady.

Both are set against the backdrop of one of the greatest urban engineering feats in London history: the construction of a sewer system that would stop raw, untreated sewage from flowing directly into the Thames. A few particularly "blistering" summer weeks in 1858 prompted Parliament to cough up money for the project. Clark gives a vivid sense of what motivated the usually stingy legislators:

"The newspapers called it simply the Great Stink. Day after day, week after week, the Stygian pool of the Thames had stewed in the relentless sun and sent its putrid reproaches directly and powerfully into the House of Commons. It was claimed that no one who inhaled the sickening stench would ever forget it, assuming, that was, that he lived long enough to remember it."

Murder, swindles, self-mutilation, rat-killing-as-pub-entertainment and noble-minded civic enterprise all meet in Clark's complex narrative, with only a little creakiness of coincidence-rigging machinery toward the end. The more lurid and eerie effects of her 19th-century pastiche recall Robert Louis Stevenson in Mr. Hyde mode.

At the same time, she strikes a perfect note in emphasizing the correct atmosphere of the Metropolitan Board of Works, which cannot tolerate a hint of scandal — not even the nervous breakdown of a hardworking war veteran. And if William's supervisors had any notion of just how troubled he was, he'd be out the door instantly.

For William, the sewers become a place of refuge where he can vent his demons in an appalling masochistic fashion. For Tom, living on the margins of society, the sewers are a virtual ecosystem, providing him with his living.

Clark induces a deep sympathy for both men, even in their most extreme moments of duress and wrongdoing. She clearly loves her London, however stinky, and just as clearly has done her research on how the city was transformed from pestilent breeding ground to civilized sanitary metropolis. Here's a talent to watch.

"Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits"
by Laila Lalami
Algonquin, 195 pp., $21.95

The characters in Portland author Laila Lalami's first novel feel their country, Morocco, offers them so little future that they resort to trying to enter neighboring Spain illegally. But their clandestine boat-trip there is a fiasco.

A couple of them make it. The others get caught. Those who make it enter worlds that make nonsense of their motives for fleeing Morocco. Those caught and expelled by the authorities find that life back home has its own surprises.

In spare but keenly observant prose, Lalami traces their varying fates. She also structures "Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits" in a cunning way, moving both backward and forward in time from the night of the illegal crossing, allowing her to cover a remarkable amount of ground in surprisingly few pages.

Her characters' reasons for fleeing Morocco are straightforward — joblessness, political trouble, a marriage that turned to nightmare — but their image of what Europe and America promise is more complicated. Plenty of Western "perks" can be found in their Morocco: fancy cars, mobile phones, Internet cafés. But the gaps between the haves and the have-nots, the educated and the barely literate, can feel unbridgeable.

In this new Morocco, it's often the men who are unemployed while the women find work. Lalami suggests that this situation, in altering the dynamics of family (a man without work loses face among his relatives), is precipitating a return to conservative Islamic tradition — among the women, strangely enough, as often as the men. (One male returnee, after five years of working in Madrid, is shocked to see his sister in "one of those Islamic scarves that had seemed to multiply since he left.")

The ordinary familiarity of Lalami's characters — a teenage girl fighting with her parents over whether a new friend is a bad influence, a married man realizing (and quietly accepting) that his closest pal is gay — makes the broader social change surrounding them all the more unsettling. There's something cautionary, too, in Lalami's portrait of the cultural dislocations her characters inflict on themselves as they try to find a place in the world.

Each chapter contains a light, sure sense of its subject and a clear-eyed assessment of people who may be at an impasse right now, but will surely find their way with a little luck in the future — no matter how "dangerous" their pursuit of hope proves to be.

"Beasts of No Nation"

by Uzodinma Iweala
HarperCollins, 142 pp., $16.95

Few things can be more extreme than forcing a child to become a soldier.

Agu, the young narrator of Nigerian-American writer Uzodinma Iweala's debut novel, is literally dragged into rebel-army service in an unnamed West African country mired in civil war. With stark, unsparing clarity, Agu relates the catalogue of horrors that befall him — and that he inflicts on others.

That ought to make "Beasts of No Nation" unbearable to read. Yet Iweala's handling of language — equal parts West African lilt and child's naive sing-song — acts almost as an anaesthetic, allowing you to see what's being shown here.

In interviews Iweala reveals he did extensive research on child soldiers, but his novel wears it lightly. Instead, it's Agu's voice that comes to fore: his fears, guilt, discomfort, ploys for survival and, in one terrifying scene, surrender to blood lust ("I am standing outside myself and I am watching it all happening").

Flashbacks take the reader to Agu's prewar childhood and the gradual approach of faraway hostilities, including the increasing poverty of the refugees that Agu and his family see streaming through their village. Folktale flourishes add unexpected color to the narrative, and Iweala's gift for conveying complex visual information in the simplest of terms is extraordinary.

Here's Agu watching the "enemy" approach a rebel roadside ambush: "I am looking out from behind my tire and down the road the air is shaking just like still water if you are throwing rock into it. And then I am seeing small small truck moving closer, moving slowly slowly like cow."

There's an undeveloped, amoral side to Agu that occasionally sees in his ordeal the elements of boy's adventure. Ultimately, however, hunger and exhaustion and immersion in random rape and death take their toll. Is there anything human left in this boy after what he's been through?

There is, Iweala suggests, letting us know late in the book of Agu's hope one day "to be teachering or farming, or Doctor or Engineer." There is also a suggestion in "Beasts of No Nation" that this is just the first salvo from an author who, one feels, could take on any topic.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company




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