If you fancy a satisfyingly thick historical novel of the non-romantic sort that's heavy on detail and atmosphere, with a bit of darkness and naughtiness thrown in, then you should give this a try.
It's a great premise: a woman teetering on the edge of the workhouse when faced with supporting a sick husband and child keeps the family bookbinding business afloat by getting involved in the murky world of Victorian porn.
But am I the only one who found it rather alienating? And, sometimes, downright weird? The lack of focus certainly made me dizzy. The descriptions of life in mid Victorian Lambeth are brilliantly done, and you learn a lot about the world of publishing and the people who worked in it at the time. But then you're whisked from the working class streets to some sort of kinky secret society, a fight club, a Limehouse opium den and tattoo parlour, a political meeting, and an upper class drawing room. Dora's family is straight out of Dickens (was there ever such a sentimental portrayal of a child?) but her friends and associates include a gay bookbinder, a society woman with strange fantasies about black men, various pornographers, a freed negro slave, and a dodgy doctor who also happens to be an explorer. Trying too hard to be interesting, do you think?
Dora is a wonderful creation but I didn't think that any of her relationships with the other characters were particularly convincing. The tone is uncertain (towards the end it's more like a gothic horror story), the prose and dialogue don't exactly flow. And despite the fact that it skipped about so randomly, I found the plot to be predictable (well, maybe not the tattooed buttocks ...) and the themes heavy-handed. And, as always, I could have done without the lazy epilogue tacked on at the end.
But it's different, it's a good idea, and it's readable. If you like a book with the sort of atmosphere that's evoked by Michael Faber and Sarah Waters, then you will like this. It's definitely a book with pretentions. The author was obviously brimming over with ideas and information about Victorian London that she'd researched and just had to cram in. With an editor to give it some much-needed focus, how much better it would have been. There's enough material here for a series (and imagine a tv series!) set in Ivy Street. Sadly, Belinda Starling has died and there will be no more. What a shame, when there are so many authors trading on past success and churning out inferior rubbish, that she only published this one book.