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england fiction historical suspense

The Dress lodger

by Sheri Holman

ISBN 0345436911 / 9780345436917 / 0-345-43691-1
Publisher Ballantine
Language English
Edition Softcover
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Book summary

The Dress Lodger is engrossing historical fiction. As in the best of its genre, Sheri Holman's atmospheric, miasmic tale set in cholera-stricken Sunderland, England, circa 1831 is based on fact. Its epigraph from Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary--"Grave: A place where the dead are laid to await the coming of the medical student"--casts the novel's thematic lodestone, steering the reader into a deathly plot pursued through streets emanating the sounds, insufferable smells, humor, adversities, and disease of an early-19th-century industrial city.

Fifteen-year-old Gustine--the dress lodger--is a potter's assistant by day, prostitute by night. Her overbearing pimp and landlord has her permanently shadowed by an indefatigable, mysterious old woman "called Eyeball or Evil Eye or Gray Sister by boys who have read their Homer, but mostly called just plain Eye." Otherwise how could he guard his investment in the startling blue dress in which Gustine rents herself? Her trade, he explains, "works on this basic principle: a cheap whore is given a fancy dress as a higher class of prostitute, the higher the station of the clientèlle; the higher the station, the higher the price." Gustine's garment beckons Henry Chiver, an ambitious young surgeon who has fled Edinburgh, having been implicated in the convictions of infamous pioneer anatomists Burke and Hare for murder and grave robbing. For this doctor, desperate to reestablish his tarnished reputation through medical discovery, the heart is the favorite organ, "the singular fascination of his life." But to further his researches, and quell the increasing demands of his paying students--who are restless for induction into the arts of the scalpel--Henry requires dead bodies for dissection, to the horror of his naïve, philanthropic fiancée. But the Anatomy Act, which allows doctors to obtain corpses legally, has yet to pass through Parliament, and a suspicious public is terrifying itself with stories of murderous "burkers."

Street-smart Gustine, a pragmatist trapped in unrelenting poverty, is all heart for her nameless little son who wears--literally--his heart on the outside. His rare case of ectopia cordis is just the sort of anatomical anomaly whose study would make a name for the doctor. Amid the gathering momentum of the cholera epidemic, Henry and Gustine strike up a fatal pact: life for her son in exchange for a fresh supply of dead bodies for Henry's dissection. With mordant Dickensian wit and Elizabeth Gaskell's deft touch for gutsy outcast women seizing control of their destiny, Sheri Holman carves out a rich, imaginative adventure as incisive and as gruesomely fascinating as a 19th-century operating theater. --Rachel Holmes [via]