I bought this book on the recommendation of a colleague, having only vaguely heard of it before. I found the opening section of the book, the account of Jurgis' wedding, just a little off putting as the reader is introduced to a bewilderingly large cast of characters in quick succession. However the novel soon becomes intensely absorbing as we follow the fortunes of Jurgis and his extended family as they strive to secure - and then keep - various gruelling, badly paid and often extremely dangerous jobs in Chicago's meat packing industry.
The book is highly polemical - very similar to Robert Tressell's `Ragged Trousered Philanthropists' in many ways - as it demonstrates the dangers of a laissez faire economy, tracing the journey of a hopeful, hard working and rather conservative group of people to despair, death, and prostitution. The hero, Jurgis, begins the story a starry eyed believer in the American Dream but is forced to realize that the system exploits the labour of the young and strong, and abandons the sick and the old.
The family's problems begin when they are swindled into buying a house by a developer who fails to reveal all the hidden charges and penalties - but this disaster seems trivial compared to what follows. Sinclair's cool and forensic exposition of the various horrific situations his characters find themselves in adds to the novel's power. 'The Jungle' is not for the squeamish, and Sinclair's accounts of the various disgusting practices of the meat industry are as gruesomely compelling as Orwell's stories of Paris restaurant kitchens.
As a modern reader in the West I found myself alternating between relief that things have changed for the better and realization that in some ways - and in some places - things aren't so very different