Thursday, October 13, 2011

Come to Dance the Macabray: A Review of Necropolis: London and Its Dead by Catharine Arnold

Title: Necropolis: London and Its Dead
Author: Catharine Arnold
Edition: Paperback
Publisher: Pocket Books (2007)
Pages: 304
Challenges: GoodReads 2011 Reading Challenge
How I Came by This Book: The cover of this book immediately caught my eye as it sat tantalizingly on the new acquisitions shelf at my library. I think I was the first person to even crack it open.

About the Author: Catharine Arnold read English at Cambridge and holds a further degree in psychology. A journalist, academic and popular historian, Catharine's previous books include the novel "Lost Time", winner of a Betty Trask award. Her London trilogy for Simon & Schuster comprises of "Necropolis: London and Its Dead", "Bedlam, London and Its Mad" and (to be published August 2010) "City of Sin, London and Its Vices". (from Simon and Schuster)

Synopsis: Layer upon layer of London soil reveals burials from pre-historic and medieval times. The city is one giant grave, filled with the remains of previous eras. The Houses of Parliament sit on the edge of a former plague pit; St Paul's is built over human remains; Underground tunnels were drive through forgotten catacombs, thick with bones. A society can be judged by the way it treats its dead, and this is especially true of London. From Roman burial-rites to the horrors of the plague, from the founding of the great Victorian cemeteries to the development of cremation and the cult of mourning that surrounded the dead of Diana, Princess of Wales--Necropolis leaves no headstone unturned in its exploration of our changing attitudes towards the deceased among us.

Review: Those of you who read my blog on a regular basis have probably gathered that I have a strange fascination with death. Not in a creepy way. I just find it to be a compelling subject. From the anthropomorphic personification of death to the cultural implications of death and dying, death has long fascinated many people, so I'm thankfully not alone. Catharine Arnold's Necropolis is an amazing addition to the myriad books about the topic that already exist. Exploring history, religion, psychology, sexuality, architecture (among other things), Arnold gives a well-rounded account of London and its dead from its earliest days to its current incarnation.

In a surprisingly succinct and highly interesting narrative, Arnold moves more or less chronologically from pagan burial rituals straight through to the funeral of Princess Diana in 1997 and the London terror attacks of 2005. In a little under 300 pages (about twenty or so pages of the 304 are notes and bibliography), she packs in centuries of death all focused around one city. She covers an immense amount of information, including the plagues that ravaged London on and off for hundreds of years, the movement of corpses from city graves to suburban cemeteries, and the seedy underbelly of burial that led to scandals and horrors. She clearly knows her subject and is able to effortlessly move from talking about health and medicine to talking about architecture.

Necropolis was a quick read and one that held my attention from beginning to end. Mixing historical fact with rumor, myth, and gossip, Arnold conveys a story that is both compelling and disturbing. For such a huge period of time (thousands of years), she manages to tell a sweeping story in a concise and crisp manner. This is the story of kings and queens as much as it is the story of London's poor and destitute. It is not only the major historical players who find a final resting place within these pages, but everyday people. Death comes for everyone in the end and Arnold deftly describes burial and funerary rituals for the castle-dwellers, those who sleep in the streets, and everybody in between.

A multi-disciplinary approach to death, Necropolis has something for everyone. Regardless of your field of interest, Arnold probably touches on it--from science to literature, art to anthropology. People simply looking for a fun book to read will also come away satisfied. At times reverential, at times critical, this book explores all aspects of London's past and present experiences with the dead. Some of these experiences will leave you shocked, disgusted, or spooked, but all of them will resonate with the reader.

I'm giving Necropolis: London and Its Dead 5 out of 5 Gabriels.

And in the spirit of the Halloween season (and the nature of this book), here's an apropos piece of music: Camille Saint-Saens' "Danse Macabre."


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