I used to think I knew Nineteenth century history and literature. And then I read Shark Alley. Spanning the first half of the century, the time setting of this remarkable book allows the author to explore his evident passion for Victorian literature alongside his sympathies for the emergence of the British working class political movement. The narrator, Jack Vincent, leads us seamlessly from his origins in Georgian rural England to early Victorian London and on into the Colonies.
Here in spirit and subject matter I find so many of the greats on whom I cut my own emerging literary awareness. Here is Thomas Hardy in the narrator’s early rural years, here is George Eliot’s Eppie in the golden curls of Jack Vincent’s little sister Sarah, and here woven into plot as well a the subject matter is Thackery. But here beyond all others is Charles Dickens whom it seems is the writer that the narrator (and dare I suggest perhaps even the author?) would most like to have been himself. Thus we are drawn from the horrors of a medically unattended death in childbirth (the narrator’s mother) through the comparable horrors of Marshalsea debtors’ prison , on into the terminal horrors of the unattended death in the squalor of the London slums of the author’s father (I cannot bring myself to disclose the truly shocking detail Stephen Carver describes). Dr Carver’s Victorian England is one in which the grim life of the rural and urban poor is exceeded only by the grim death that follows it. Here, in consequence, I do not find the Brontes, and here I most definitely do not find Jane Austen.
The narrator’s personal journey takes him on the troop carrier Birkenhead to South Africa where, it is no secret to disclose, it is wrecked. Vincent is present throughout the journey and the wreck, describing in graphic detail the fate in the titular Shark Alley of those that did not make it to the lifeboats – as well of that of some that did. These two story lines of the early and middle years of Jack Vincent are woven into an alternating narrative that keeps the plot moving at a pace that retains the reader’s interest, perpetuating the vehicle for the author’s real interest which lines in social history. Hence Vincent’s scandalous affair with society hostess Mina Garwood is contrasted with his eventual courtship of and loving marriage to London seamstress Grace in a story line that pauses briefly to explore, amongst other socio-political landmarks, the Chartist Kennington Rally of 1848.
At over 200,000 words this ‘trippledecker’ is no lightweight read. If any criticism is to be made of it, it is perhaps that Jack Vincent is too socially aware and that holds values that are more twentieth or even twenty-first century than nineteenth. For this apparent anachronism we cannot blame him though, for Dr Carver has surely time travelled in the tradition of his favourite penny-a-line serialisations. Though we have never met, I am quite certain that Stephen Carver is Jack Vincent.
I have no difficulty in awaiting this work the maximum five stars and I await its sequel with interest. Congratulations, Dr Carver, on a fine achievement.