Dark River Melody, by MD Murphy, is a novel that brings
“the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of Georgian London to the page”
“a palpable sense of the capital in all its terrible glory, its poetic squalor.”
The story encapsulates the social conditions, inequalities and injustices of the period. Through it all runs the river breathing in and out; emanating life, power, beauty and menace; representing the unstoppable progression of time.
The tale opens with the return to London of Tom Gobey who has been in prison in Botany Bay for the past seven years. His crime was to write a pamphlet criticising the church, government and King. Having served his time he now desires nothing more than to be reunited with his sweetheart, Eileen Dineen, an Irish beauty and fellow republican.
From the moment Tom steps off the boat he encounters trouble. He challenges a slave trader who will remember his face. He finds himself being pursued by an unknown assailant intent on his demise. Add to this his repeated encounters with wandering press gangs and he frequently finds himself on the run.
He comes across an old friend, Johnny Steadman, slumped in a pillory for singing a rebel song in a tavern whilst drunk. Johnny offers Tom shelter but informs him that Eileen is now living with an aristocrat. Tom determines to find her anyway, to discover if she still harbours feelings for him. He is unaware that it is her new man, the aristocrat Saffronetti, who has instructed his henchman, Mr Sticks, to do away with Tom in an attempt to force Eileen to give him the attention he craves.
Mr Sticks is one of the most vile characters that I have ever come across in literature:
“his heart felt black – black and hard as obsidian – and all its rhythms were driven by hate.”
The descriptions of his smell, habits and his treatment of others are vivid and stomach churning. He is an impressively gross creation, terrifying in his apparent unassailabilty and horrible in every imaginable meaning of the word.
This whole tale is an excellent evocation of the city and the bewildering variety of life that populates its streets. The extremes of wealth, privilege and power highlight the injustices of the time. Some things, unfortunately, have not changed.
The book beats with a pulse that is London with the river flowing through its heart. As Tom seeks out his beloved and struggles to escape his various assailants we meet those who, despite their own suffering, are still able to show compassion. When Tom encounters a dark skinned slave they find they have much in common besides their current predicament:
“Both had been rocked on the ocean, sent to lands afar. Both had incessantly dreamed of their native land.”
I did not like some of the coincidences used to progress the plot: Eileen being in the carriage Tom happened to jumped on, the house he rolled into while trying to make his way to the bone setter turning out to be Safronetti’s. However, it is the use of language that is the story’s strength. There is a terrible beauty to the prose, a dark melody that permeates each page.
I loved this book quite simply for the pleasure of reading it. It breathed life. Whatever the oppression and squalor described there remained hope.
Reading this book was like listening to beautiful, haunting music. The sounds will linger in memory long after the last note has been sung.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Cutting Edge Press.