Thursday, May 25, 2023

Review: A Clockwork River, by J. S. Emery

 A rambling, Dickensian stroll through a world of secrets, intrigue, and hydraulics

Cover design by Micaela Alcaino

Some books are flirts, entertainers, beggars for attention. They are constructed to keep the reader engaged at every moment, throwing in chases, cliff-hangers, romances, and explosions to sweeten any necessary exposition and keep the reader from getting bored. They are a tight 70,000 words, aware that they are competing with TikTok and Snapchat and all those other much-maligned services of modern connectivity for the reader’s attention.

Other books self-consciously reject that approach, indulging in massive door-stopper world-building, or deeply literary prose, or obscure explorations of structure that, if you are in a kindly mood, betray a trust in the reader’s erudition and ability to appreciate such a writerly approach—or, if you tend toward peevishness, showcase nothing but the writer’s navel-gazing indulgence in spewing out such turgid sludge.

Then you’ve got books like A Clockwork River. It comfortably tops 700 pages, and has a plot as meandering as its titular river, and yet somehow feels like a comforting warm bath of genial chaos. Its events center around the river Rhumb, which powers all of the city of Lower Rhumbsford via an ancient mechanism that has, over the generations, been slowly winding down. But the people of Lower Rhumbsford have lost the knowledge to maintain and repair the hydraulic marvels that were the foundation of its historical magnificence, and the city has been quietly crumbling and decaying, ceding more and more of itself to watery decrepitude. In response, the city leaders have hatched an ill-conceived scheme involving building a dam upstream to revitalize the river—one which the hydraulic engineers urgently warn against. This all sounds very grand and intriguing, but if it you take it as a plot synopsis, you will be quite surprised. The dam project is not so much a plot as a general suggestion of a direction toward which an enormous variety of unrelated events all generally end up coinciding. Forget the mighty Mississippi and consider instead the Louisiana Delta: Water eventually gets to the sea, but it encounters a lot of channels and backwaters and a certain degree of hydraulic infrastructure along the way.

At this point I should hasten to reassure you that meandering backwaters and branching channels of plot are not in the slightest bit a bad thing. Each one of the branching channels offers something new and charming. We have channels involving kidnapping, explosions, floods, theatre troupes; we have long lost family, imposters, political intrigue, sewer-dwelling hydraulic engineers, and house spirits that monitor floorboards for dry rot; we have romance, magic, mystery, villainy, heroism, Dickensian sentimentality and Shakespearean farce. My favorite subplot involved the exploits of a club of lock-fanciers who turn out to be very skilled at wreaking havoc in the best possible way, but if that’s not to your liking you’ll find many, many other options on offer.

The genial chaos of the narrative is well supported by the genially chaotic approach to narration. The point of view pronks from character to character, many of them secondary or tertiary figures, who may or may not reappear later in ways that may or may not turn out to be important. The narrative is chummy, conspiratorial, and a more than a littlee absent-minded. It’s like a retired uncle who loves to tell stories about his past that you’re pretty sure he’s embellishing, but you don’t have the heart to challenge him on them, because they are so entertaining, and he’s having such a good time telling them. Sure, he occasionally wanders from the point, but even then he does it quite charmingly, Consider, for example, this meditation on the nature of homophones:

One of the uncomfortable peculiarities of language is that sometimes two words will sound exactly the same even though they relate to completely different objects . . . Such coincidences are so commonly encountered, and communication proceeds so swimmingly despite them (in fact they demonstrably enrich the language through that charming class of jokes we know as puns), that only a great pedant would bother to belabor the point.

This sequence continues at some length, before concluding:

I fear I have lost track of the point I was trying to make; the devil knows what it was; perhaps you can make better sense of it than I.

The two homophones in question are lock, the gadget you use to secure doors and other openable objects, and Locke, the name of the family whose adventures form the core of this narrative. I suppose at this point I should describe our two main characters; but one rather irritating quirk of this tale is that the main characters are some of the least interesting people in the entire book. Sam Locke is a young man with a passionate interest in locks, possessing the finest collection of antique and unusual locks in Lower Rhumbsford, which he promptly must leave behind when he is mugged on the street for one of them and forcibly enlisted in the army. He spends much of the rest of the book being the subject of various plots and intrigues—all of them enormously entertaining, but very few of them the result of any intentional action or initiative on his part. People do all sorts of things to him; he does very little for himself. At the beginning of his adventures his clothes get swapped out, and it seems that the possibility of recovering his trousers is the only thing that can wring some intentional action out of him. I found myself having a much better time during the bits where his friends in the Lock, Key, and Fob Club took over the focus of the narrative, disrupting auctions with exquisite legal shenanigans, and breaking into jails as only a large group of lock aficionados can do.

Sam’s sister Briony is another main character with very little agency. She is a chemist, and brews up potions in her bedroom closet, for which there is plenty of room now that her family’s failing fortunes have shrunk the size of her wardrobe. You’d think that someone who can brew up love potions and death potions would be able to contribute to the turbulent froth surrounding her in all sorts of active, intentional ways, but like her brother, Briony is someone that the plot happens to. The Briony-related bits are lots of fun, to be sure: a mysterious doctor arrives and quickly takes control of her family for purposes that remain obscure and kept me guessing for much longer than I thought they would; a city official decides he wants to marry her for reasons that are so self-evidently sinister that it’s quite frustrating how passive she is about asking key questions; her friend Fanny bullies her into participating in all sorts of activities involving imposters and duels, allowing Briony’s potions a long-denied opportunity to unleash havoc among people other than the house mice. (Fanny is a wonderful agent to chaos, and made all sorts of plot happen to Briony.)

In sum, this book is lively, friendly, and full of activity, if lacking in direction. It fully lives up to the promise of the first few pages. If you open it up and find the narrative voice entertaining and the approach to setting and exposition charming, you’ll have a good time. If you find yourself getting restless and looking for meaning and direction—well, you’d be better off finding yourself a Mississippi River of a book. Here in the Delta, water moves differently.



Nerd coefficient: 7, an enjoyable experience, but not without its flaws

Many, many different parallel, intersecting, merging, and splitting plot threads

Entertaining narrative voice with a decided personality

Hydraulic engineering at its finest.

CLARA COHEN lives in Scotland in a creaky old building with pipes for gas lighting still lurking under her floorboards. She is an experimental linguist by profession, and calligrapher and Islamic geometric artist by vocation. During figure skating season she does blather on a bit about figure skating. She is on mastodon at

Reference: A Clockwork River. J. S. Emery. [Head of Zeus, 2021].