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THE DRESS LODGER by Sheri Holman


by Sheri Holman

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-87113-753-4
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly

If Clive Barker ever writes a historical novel, he’ll be hard pressed to invent horrors more lurid than the rotting corpses and dangling viscera that grace, so to speak, this lurid and fascinating second novel from Holman (A Stolen Tongue, 1997). Teenaged Gustine (the —dress lodger—), a prostitute whose “master” garbs her in finery in order to attract the lust of well-paying gentry, is the focal point of this high-energy melodrama, set in the English riverside city of Sunderland in 1831—a year when a plague of “cholera morbus” decimates the populace, and engages the initially reluctant services of Henry Chiver, a young physician hoping to specialize in diseases of the heart but compromised by fallout from the scandal also involving the notorious “body snatchers” Burke and Hare, which had caused him to leave Edinburgh in disgrace. Holman’s busy plot also involves Chiver’s idealistic fiancÇe Audrey Place, a progressive young woman who pits herself against the plague’s root causes—poverty and uncleanliness; Gustine’s blackhearted procurer Whilky Robinson, along with his beloved pet ferret Mike; and a mute, one-eyed old woman (known locally as the —Eye—) employed by Whilky to keep watch on Gustine’s nocturnal wanderings. The interactions of these and several other remarkably complex characters occur in a context of deepening fear and conflict, exacerbated by the belief of Sunderland’s poor that the medical establishment casually sacrifices them to aid its researches; by Henry’s increasingly guilty conscience, and by Gustine’s efforts to protect—from both death and doctors—her illegitimate baby, an anatomical misfit born with its “heart . . . beating on the outside of its chest.” Many more grotesqueries appear, in an atmospheric tale that may have readers gasping for air. Another stunner from a gifted and versatile new master of historical fiction. (First printing of 40,000; Book-of-the- Month/Quality Paperback Book Club selections)