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Book Review: The Journal of Dora Damage by Belinda Starling

 Book Review: The Journal of Dora Damage by Belinda Starling


Finishing is the way [a] book presents itself to the world and gets noticed; the forward is more like womens work, for one never notices it unless it has been shoddily done, muses Dora Damage of Damage Bindings. Its mid-eighteenth century London, and Dora speaks from experience: her role in the business is little more than nominal. Dora is the invisible brownie of the household, taking care of the thankless, repetitive tasks that her book-binder husband Peter tells her are so properly suited to women.

Indeed, Dora is kept so firmly behind the scenes caring for her epileptic daughter Lucinda and managing the day-to-day affairs of the household that she only realises that the business is trouble when the debt collectors come callingand for a substantial sum. Even then, Peter, whose ailing health has effectively prevented him from continuing his work, insists that things are not as bad as they seem. By not as bad, he means that theyre far worse. With that off his chest, Peter, bitter at the apparent emasculation caused by his inability to work, effectively settles in to wait out the end, leaving Dora to try to manage the familys finances and keep the bindery running.

But if Doras role within the home is limited, its painfully so when she ventures beyond her front door. With every step shes reminded of her position as a second-class citizen, of how few opportunities are available to women, and of the potential consequences of looking sidelong at the way things are presently done.'Unsurprisingly, when Dora makes the decision to take over the operations at the bindery, she is met with opposition from all sidesthe few exceptions are those who are deviant in their own ways. Her husband viciously upbraids her for her insolence and vulgarity, resentful of the idea that she might succeed where he has not; her trips to select binding materials must be undertaken on the sly; her initial commissions have to be passed off as the work of Peter, never mind that he is presently drowning beneath the weight of a prolonged opium stupor (which Dora is apparently not too fussed about).

For those living in Doras era, being female is form of captivity. Its a method of living thats largely silent and voiceless, and this is echoed throughout the book.'Theres always the threat of being deemed mad, something that carried terrible consequences for women of the time, who could be promptly put away purely on the say-so of a male figure: its a threat that encourages silence and obedience. Madness is a female word, she says. Its a madness they say, like its a governess or a seamstress, or a murderess. Theres no male equivalent, no such word as madner.

Although Dora eventually is accepted into a particular, and peculiar, book binding circle, this idea remains. Dora merely handles books rather than creating or even consuming them. (Even the book itself, which is apparently epistolary, has only a single page to indicate that our narrator has had a hand in its creation.) Rather, Dora is to be concerned with the superficial, and only the superficial. This is highlighted by the fact that what Doras clients most love about her work is its clear female touch, the use of fabrics and non-linear designs that mark the work as a womans. She is told at one point:'Your bindings are as beautiful, as sensual, as arousing, as full of vigour aswellas'you are.

Though Dora is initially proud of her work, which provides her with a result,'an object that I could hold, and of which I could be proud, as she becomes acquainted with the material that shes binding, she becomes increasingly ambivalent. Her daughters words are prescient: But Mam, what if theyre goblins'disguised'as books? And when we got to bed they leap up off the workbench and go to the goblin ball?

Goblins indeed. For poor Dora has found herself the preferred bookbinder of a group of the pornographically inclined. And to say that the work is bacchanal is a euphemism to say the least. While Bacchus danced amongst them on the table, Priapus, I knew all too well, pranced beneath, she says. Of course, as Dora shows herself as able to be trusted, her commissions become more and more questionable. My shame would protect me, I believed. At least, it always had done; we women wear it like a veil, she says early on. Then later:'My amusement was my protection, for in truth I was deeply discomfited by some of what I was confrontingI had to convince myself I was fashioningthe pearl around the grit in the oyster; I was making something beautiful out of something ugly. The more she works, the greater she finds the disconnect between the subject matter of these texts and her own personal experience.

Until, that is, the book hits its mid point and all sorts of rambunctious plot threads proliferate, and Dora finds herself on a curious and transgressive learning curve.

Unfortunately, though theres plenty of interest to be found in these shenanigans, it doesnt all quite come together. The first half of the book is wonderful, all precise wit and incisive observation and elegant style, and centres largely around Doras efforts to break out of the restrictive role of the female while managing the expectations of her family. The second half, on the other hand, is about as high octane as a book set in the 1850s can be. We have escaped slaves from America, kidnappings, a ye olde fight club, noblewomen ejected from their homes, possible bastard children, arrests, protests, political plots and a final narrative coup that will have you vowing off leather forever more. I, no doubt like Dora, couldnt shake the feeling that I was getting something quite different from what I signed up for.

Still, Belinda Starling, in what is sadly her first and only book, has created something lush and memorable here. Her London setting and the bookbinding trade are evocatively and minutely depicted, and the theme of female emancipationboth sexual and professionalis thoughtfully and lucidly drawn. Though theres a bit too much going on here for my taste, its for the most part an enjoyable read.

Rating: star Book Review: The Journal of Dora Damage by Belinda Starlingstar Book Review: The Journal of Dora Damage by Belinda Starlingstar Book Review: The Journal of Dora Damage by Belinda Starlingblankstar Book Review: The Journal of Dora Damage by Belinda Starlingblankstar Book Review: The Journal of Dora Damage by Belinda Starling (good)

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  1. You liked this a lot more than I did. I thought the second half of the book was a bit too much of a departure from the first half. It was as if I were reading a totally different book, all of a sudden, and it all got a bit silly, really. Starling had done her research on book binding though, and her talent as a writer shines through, despite the strange turns of plot. Its very sad that she died so young.

    • Stephanie /

      I definitely agree about the disjointed feel of the bookit almost feels as if a naughty book binder mistakenly bound two separate books together :). I really did enjoy the first half of the book, though, although I completely agree with you that the second half feels discordant.

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