The Journal of Dora Damage
By Belinda Starling
My third book for Lesley's Armchair Traveler reading challenge is perhaps the best I've read yet! It's an engrossing journey through another time and place and a rich, complex life.
London in the 1860s is a dangerous, scandalous place to exist, especially if you're Dora Damage, the matriarch of the ailing Damage Bookbinders. When her husband, Peter, begins to fall into rheumatic disability, Dora surpasses her station as a submissive wife and mother and takes over the family business.
Dora shows an exceptional talent for binding books, from her creative embroidery and color choices, to her quick mind and willingness to work her hands to cracked, aching stubs. However, no matter how hard she tries in the beginning, the money just doesn't come. Finally, based on her covert work, she lands a job binding ladies' journals and other miscellaneous books. This first innocent employment leads to greater, more dangerous things--namely the task of binding pornography for a treacherous group of London's powerful and ruthless upper crust.
Despite my initial attraction to this book based solely on the fact that it appealed to my bibliophile nature, it had much more to offer than I anticipated. Starling's writing flows seamlessly, a clever mix of English slang and contemporary English. One quickly gets the feeling of being smack dab in the middle of Dora's life, facing down a traditional, sick and slightly mad husband, not to mention the benefactors that could potentially ruin her life. Dora's relationships with her employees and her daughter, Lucinda, are expertly fleshed and achingly believable, making Dora all the more sympathetic and intriguing.
Dora's journey is not only economic, but certainly personal and emotional. Hers is the story of a budding intellectual curiosity, as she reads almost every book to come through the bindery, and eventually her sexuality begins to blossom as well. But nothing comes easily or without a price. And I won't say more for fear of ruining the book for you, dear reader.
Sadly, Belinda Starling passed away in August of 2006 after complications following surgery. She was 34 years old, and The Journal of Dora Damage was her first novel. It is tragic, for Starling was a talented writer with many stories to give. However, those of us daring enough to enter Dora Damage's world are lucky to have such a striking book to hold onto and enjoy.