cover image The Dress Lodger

The Dress Lodger

Sheri Holman. Atlantic Monthly Press, $24 (291pp) ISBN 978-0-87113-753-1

Scrawny and tough, only 15, Gustine is the heartrending protagonist of Holman's brilliantly stark portrayal of 19th-century urban life, class warfare, cruel medicine and encroaching pestilence in the English city of Sunderland. With remarkable breadth and depth, the narrative vividly portrays the human suffering spawned by the early Industrial Revolution. Inhabitants of city slums endure oozing sores, infections, lice--not to mention the devastating cholera morbus making its lethal way through Sunderland's population. Gustine works two jobs to support her beloved illegitimate infant, who was born with his heart outside his chest cavity. By day she's a potter's assistant, but to earn enough to live, by night she walks the streets wearing an expensive, elegant blue gown supplied by her pimp/landlord as a ploy to attract higher-class tricks. Pimp Whilky Robinson employs a deaf-mute, one-eyed old woman to follow Gustine constantly, to protect the dress, his treasured investment. Gustine hates the old woman, called ""The Eye,"" but cannot shake this all-seeing symbol of mortality and fate (""Does not old age always dog youth? Does not monstrosity forever shadow beauty?""). Seeking medical help for her ailing child, Gustine strikes up an alliance with surgeon and anatomist Dr. Henry Chivers. The doctor needs corpses for dissection and since Gustine stumbles upon plenty of dead bodies in her night work, she becomes a resource for the ambitious, depraved doctor. The cholera epidemic, graphically and tirelessly described, entwines the lives of the doctor and Gustine, even as Dr. Chivers grows reckless in the resurrection business, eventually inviting violent retribution by impoverished citizens who discover their loved ones' pauper-graves exhumed. Holman (A Stolen Tongue) delivers a wealth of morbid, authentic detail, as well as an emotional pivot in her captivating Moll Flanders-like heroine. The major characters are buttressed by a vivacious cast of minors: Whilky's cowed daughter, Pink; a troupe of traveling thespians; pawnbrokers; rat catchers; and sailors. Holman's style is risky and direct, treating scenes of Gustine's quick, humiliating back-alley couplings as well as the doctor's hypocritical sleaze, with unflinching emotional precision. This dazzlingly researched epic is an uncommon read. Agent, Molly Friedrich. 40,000 first printing; BOMC and QPB selections. (Jan.)