The Journal of Dora Damage by Belinda Starling

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The Journal of Dora Damage by Belinda Starling

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: The sordid world of Victorian London is nothing compared to what Dora encounters on her damaging travel through some bizarre bookbinding commissions. An entertaining literary romp.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 464 Date: August 2008
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
ISBN: 978-0747593256

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London, 1859. Peter Damage, the husband to our heroine and narrator, is not managing to cope. He can no longer cope with the intricate, technical and yet sometimes heavy work of being a bookbinder, due to disease. He can certainly not cope with the massive debts that he has run up, crippling his business's prospects just as much as any illness.

He cannot cope with seeing his epileptic five year old daughter Lucinda having a fit, and when his wife Dora takes it upon herself to polish off what little bookbinding skills she has picked up over the years, from her father and now her husband, he cannot cope without patronising sarcasm, and an ill-thought-out sense of protecting her from the hard, finger-scarring work.

Dora duly does take everything to hand, however - hocking her few possessions that are worth the pawnbroker's time, arranging for discounted hides, and picking up from where her first attempt at binding in leather ended in embarrassment.

Soon, however, Peter might well consider Dora in need of protection, if only he knew it, but by now he's losing it through laudanum. For Dora has found a quite singular speciality in the book-making business, and far from struggling to make ends meet with no prospects, the small family of her and the apprentice are able to struggle to make ends meet with fancy, rich and at times slightly menacing patrons.

That then is the springboard for the plot of the book, which soon plummets Dora into a world she knows nothing about. Not just the books - she has read a great many tomes the average binder might make or repair, but these are certainly special commissions. It is what Dora is asked to make, and more importantly do, that forms the gist of the story. They involve great society-changing attitudes, and even global history-making events you will have to wait and discover for yourself.

The world of Lambeth, where the bindery is, is perfectly portrayed here. The book goes beyond any I can remember to detail not just the sights, sounds and smells of early Victorian London, but introduces a new sense when it comes to all the liquids around - from pea-soupers, tanners' chemicals, to Peter's tears that even appear bloody by the end. The life of Dora as she breaks from the cyclical task of continuously cleaning their little home to becoming an expert designer and creator of book bindings is detailed to a great extent, with a very rich and complex vocabulary, but a finely readable, almost chatty style.

I have to admit that the plot did not take me and Dora to where I wanted us to go, or if it did not when I would have wanted - especially when considering the fly-leaf blurb, which is a bit on the telling-too-much side, but I enjoyed the unusual narrative. The book of course says a lot about female emancipation, and the shame of the husband who cannot bring himself to happily hand down the skill to the one woman he has who can carry on his name both as a family and as a company. The society she enters is also pointedly telling us about life then and to some extent now, but the book seems to be successfully discussing nothing other than its plot - there are no attempts to thrust a metaphor our way that I picked up on. The clunky use of the very name Damage is the least subtle element to the novel.

It reads quite quickly for what appears a dense book, with the strong plotting and quickly drawn characterisations allowing for quite a literary romp. There is no loss of adventure by the end, with surprise endings for characters, shock revelations and whatnot. It is the effect that all this has on Dora's character that is the main thrust of the story, and is eminently believable, beyond the early questions of whether is she pretending to be naïve or not.

The greatest fault I could find in the story was the sense of time-scale; for it seems that the business picks up with Dora's first success, but the money-lenders seem to refuse to reappear. I was cheated of the rush to continue collecting money as the days actually pass more slowly than they at first appear.

Another fact about detail in the book is that when the binding techniques are mentioned by Dora there is no effort made to let us into the world of knowing what they mean. This is just said as an aside as the book is by no means 450 pages about binding books. I think, though, there was somewhere a better style for our author to use to prove to us the depth of her research while still keeping the plot expanding out from the bindery to the world of dodgy water sources, criminals and society expectations it encompasses.

Nit-picking aside this is well worth a read, and it is not just professional courtesy to say that, as Belinda Starling herself did not live to see this, her only novel, in print, it is a great loss. There is a lot of charm in this mix of old-fashioned story and detail and before-her-time sensibilities. I can only recommend the book to those who enjoy lengthy, serious but entertaining literate romps, and thank the publishers for sending the Bookbag a copy to sample.

Buy The Journal of Dora Damage by Belinda Starling at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Journal of Dora Damage by Belinda Starling at

Buy The Journal of Dora Damage by Belinda Starling at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Journal of Dora Damage by Belinda Starling at


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