Tuesday, January 13, 2009
No, this is not my big announcement, but I have to write this.
One of the perks of my life is that my husband often brings home books to me. Books he thinks I might like to review, or books that he is pretty sure he won't want to assign for review but that he'll think I'll like. Sometimes these pile up and gather dust. Sometimes, though, I love them.
"The Journal of Dora Damage" was one of the latter. Jon saw the cover – the lettering in gold in an archaic type, against an uneven red background, with the inset of a woman's midriff in a corset - and thought, "Ah, a historical!" Always a good bet for me. When I picked him up on Friday evening, it was one of about five books in his bag (to be fair, one was a Lincoln bio for his mom). Well, as I waited for him to run in to pick up our take-out dinner, I found it and started reading. I never stopped. "The Journal of Dora Damage" is a wonderfully imagined story, the tale of an impoverished (think Dickensian) young wife with a sickly husband who is forced to take over her husband's bookbinding business in order to survive. And in order to survive, she takes whatever clients she can gets. That soon means she is binding private pornography collections. The year is 1860, and new laws have made it permissable to own (though not publish) pornography, and a certain set of gentlemen are now eager to show off their collections. Add in that one of the lady wives of these gentlemen is involved in the American abolition movement, and the stage is set for a wonderful, character-driven adventure of gender, race, and class politics, all spearheaded by a likable and independent heroine. Anyone who has enjoyed Sarah Waters' "Fingersmith" or "Tipping the Velvet" would love this book.
(I believe this is the UK cover; my edition is red.)
The book is 452 pages, and late yesterday I realized I was nearing the end. So I flipped to the end flap to find out about the author of this wonderful book. Ideally, I'd find she'd published other novels or had others in the works. What I read broke my heart: "Belinda Starling lived in Wivenhoe, Essex, with her husband and childred, and died in August 2006. The Journal of Dora Damage was her first book." A two-page note by her brother at the book's end explains more. Starling had scheduled surgery for a bile-duct cyst for shortly after the completion of this book. The surgery seemed to go well, but then an artery burst. More surgery followed and, as he says, "she never left hospital." She left her family, which includes two small children. She also left her readers. We may not have known her, but we will miss her.
On an unrelated note, I thoroughly enjoyed (even if I wasn't wowed by) the new Barry Unsworth. A very timely read, as well.