Magazine article The Spectator

Don't Judge a Book by Its Cover

Magazine article The Spectator

Don't Judge a Book by Its Cover

Article excerpt

THE JOURNAL OF DORA DAMAGE by Belinda Starling Bloomsbury, £12.99, pp. 452, ISBN9780747585220 £10.39 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

With its quartos, rectos and folio, the language of bookbinding lends itself to the novelist's palette. It's a terminology rich in tactile pleasures and potential metaphor for a writer. So it's a joy to find Belinda Starling doing it justice in The Journal of Dora Damage, not least by situating this idiosyncratic profession in the equally emotive world of Victorian London.

In a clammy corner of Lambeth in 1859, within earshot of the clattering rails of the Necropolis Railway, Dora Damage struggles to keep her family out of the workhouse. Her husband Peter, proprietor of Damage's Bookbinders, has succumbed to crippling arthritis, leaving Dora and their epileptic five-year-old daughter at the mercy of loan sharks and local gossip.

Dora is a modern woman, more in tune with bibliophilic concerns than the call of scuttles and sheets, which only serves to enrage her husband whose humour and sensitivity has become as gnarled as his hands.

Salvation offers itself in the swaggering form of Sir Jocelyn Knightley. This slimy aristocrat commissions Dora to swathe his volumes of illegal pornography in tasteful jackets. At first our heroine takes to her new role like glue to a backboard, providing ornate illustrations and bespoke materials to camouflage the true nature of her wares. However, as the threat of bankruptcy is lifted, Peter slips into an opium haze and a philanthropic society imposes a freed slave, Din, on her workshop. …

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