Synopsis from Amazon.com:
"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. "
The book opens in 1831, with the narrator, an elusive and seemingly all knowing entity, describing a night typical to the Industrial Age city of Sunderland - an English hovel limited to its own borders because of a summertime possible cholera epidemic, and also plagued with river frogs that bred themselves up over the river banks and into every facet of life on dry land. The narration follows Fos, a matchstick painter as she goes to watch a show at the theater, and then out onto the street. There the narration leaves her and turns to the real protagonist, Gustine.
Gustine is a dress lodger. That is, she makes her living by renting out a beautiful dress so that she can prostitute herself to a higher paying clientele. She is only fifteen but already has been in this business for at least two years, gaining a small four month old son in the process. She lives on Mill Street with an assortment of characters that all add a twist to the story: Whilky, her landlord and her pimp - he rules the lodging house with an iron fist (a fist he unfortunately usually uses to knock about his daughter); Pink, the landlord's daughter (age is never specified, but she's younger then Gustine for sure) who tends after the unnamed son of Gustine, a job made dangerous for the presence of the Eye - a tragic old woman with a single gray eye (for which is her nickname) who lives at the lodgings house, but never sleeps and goes out with Gustine every night (there is a haunting line that is repeated often for this: "The Dress and the Shadow.") and strikes fear into the people she comes into contact with. There is also Mike, the ferret whom Whilky holds in a higher regard then anyone else, and a few others that are mentioned briefly.
When not at work on the streets, Gustine also works in a pottery, carrying clay back and forth, so that she can afford to care for her son. The narrator describes this hard life, the weight of the clay, the long hours and leering faces, and the reader is transported into a time of destitution and fear. There are few friends to be made by a young girl, but Gustine carries on in her work, ever mindful that she is to care for the baby.
The story turns when Gustine meets Henry Chiver(She actually meets him months prior to the beginning of the story, which I thought was a clever narration tactic. By having their meeting as a flashback it helped to establish them at an intimate level without the words to bog it down. We cannot see them meet like we see them in the chapters that aren't a flashback, and so it remains a hazy panorama that serves just fine when presented with the harsh realism of the book itself), a doctor who is obsessed with hearts. This obsession is what first makes Gustine take note of the doctor as her son has a heart on the outside of his body. A tentative negotiation is made between the two - Gustine will tell him of bodies she finds while she makes her rounds at night, and one day she will ask him to help care for her son. However, the good doctor knows nothing of her son's defect as Gustine, who has been illtreated all her life, wants to keep a few cards up her sleeve.
The problem with this is hairy: Not only is body snatching illegal thanks to the Burke and Hare murders some years previous (check out this link for more info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burke_and_Hare_murders ; btw - there will be a movie about this soon ... I fear for history ...) but Chiver was caught up in that exact mess, and has also bcome quietly obsessed with a body Burke procured for him of a prostitute he had known himself. The inner monologue of Chiver as he confronts this body "in her vat of yellow whiskey" is fascinating and scary. With each mental confrontation, you can see the doctor slowly slipping into a madness. This however,does not stop him from taking the body Gustine found for him (snatching it from under the nose of a militant, angry scavenging woman) and then ignoring her when she needed aid.
The character of Chiver is one part light and science and hopeful to the future - something modern readers can recognize as a beacon of rationality in the midst of superstition and dogmatism, and three parts a loathsome creature who is stuck on his position as a higher classman, with all the entails - including the need to carve up the dead poor but not the rich - a fact made plainly obvious when his well meaning if naiive fiancee, Audrey, invites him to sign a petition (of which she has already signed) to donate their bodies to scientific research.
That's it for the plot - I don't want to spoil it for anyone.
Now to my thoughts: This book was very well written. The details are intricately woven and the characters expertly placed so that it seems natural that a tangled web of interactions takes place over and again, with all the characters meeting one another and circumstances and perceptions leaving all without vital information to add to the mounting frustration and desperation of them all. The climax of the book was shocking (no really, I was like "WHAT!?") but he characters earned it - you could feel it as the words jumped off the page and slapped you in the head - there was pain and suffering and such desperation.
The choice of cholera is an interesting one - a lot of focus was made on how it was a "pilgrim", traveling with its bodies to vast lands and other people. It is an excellent backdrop for the discussion of the poor and the rich and the ideas of that time period over the dissection of dead bodies, mistrust of medical doctors, and the state of reactions. The quarantine was also a good choice, it shows how cut off and lonely the residents of Sunderland are, trapped as they are in their own city - the rest of England wishing them all dead, so as to stop the spread of Cholera. It is a great comparison to the feeling in "Love in the Time of Cholera" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, where it was intended as a love story of sorts, and thus cholera becomes the driving wedge between the couple that ultimately serves to mature them into adults where they can truly love one another. This instead, is a story about hopes dashed and realism confronting idealism - a backdrop for a discussion of the classes that seems wed to the representation of cholera.
All in all - it is a great book. Great. I would highly recommend it for all readers! This is one you should have on your nightstand. It was sad and depressing but also in a strange way hopeful. I would also recommend "Love in the Time of Cholera" - excellent and sad.
I am open to discussion!