The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik
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August 31, 2012

Ghastly Business

What a funny (as in ha-ha funny, but also as in strange) book.  I scored a copy of this novel (not published, or not yet, in the U.S.) from the university library after reading about it on Cornflower Books.   I was expecting a mystery, though it wasn't quite that -- more of a perfectly drawn period piece (it's set in 1929) about a young woman, Dora Strang, who goes to work as a filing clerk and 'typewriter' for the famous pathologist Dr. Kemble, taking notes at his autopsies and cross-referencing his case notes on yellow index cards.

 Dora is the daughter of a (self-important, distant, opinionated, retired) Harley Street doctor. Dr. Strang, not one to embrace change, is mortified by her wish to go to university and (worse) to study medicine.

Dr. Strang, in a fit of insane optimism, had once made enquiries about the possibility of some kind of season for Theodora. Mrs. Firth knew an honourable Mrs. something or other widowed at Passchendaele who would, for a consideration (an outrageously large consideration in Dr. Strang's view), shepherd motherless girls through presentation at court and the various compulsory figures of the London season. He had got as far as paying a call on the woman, who lived in a state of suspended grandeur in Rutland Gate. He found her obnoxiously mercenary and risibly convinced of her own importance in the world (whatever he was Leopold Strang was not a snob). He'd rather settle for a dance at Tunbridge Wells -- not that the process had given air or polish to Little Else, he noted.  [One of two cousins, both named Elsie, and known behind their backs as Something Else and Precious Little Else.]  ... The sooner Augusta Bampton got that girl off her hands, the better. Bold. Flighty. And to think it would soon have the vote.
      Dora's surprise announcement about her university plans had the whole table in an uproar. The other men all sided with papa and were united in their disapproval of women's education, but he didn't seem to find their support very comforting and was clearly appalled than an entire tablesworth of virtual strangers should be discussing his personal affairs. She'd never seen papa so cross. He had all but exhausted his usual range of wordless signals to indicate that the general drift of the conversation was unacceptable to him. Nostrils had been dilated, eyebrows raised, lips pressed, knuckles whitened. Short of going cross-eyed and waggling his ears there was little more he could do to let them know that money and family business were simply Not Discussed. He was clearly determined to deal a death blow to Dora's scholarly schemes. Theodora, he announced pompously, did not have the mental capacity required for the study of medicine, and the effort to prove that she did would ruin her eyes, her looks. her reproductive health, and any prospect of a settled future. She hadn't known whether to laugh or cry.
      The Elses and their mamas  dined out on this unseemly outburst for weeks. Months. Especially relishing Dora's furious reply that she would be going on hunger strike from breakfast next day and he could jolly feed her through a tube. It had been as good as a play
When she fails her entrance exams for university, Dora persuades her father to send her to a secretarial school and then to look for a job in London, but only if she boards with Mrs. Frith, his former secretary who now earns her living renting out rooms and serving horrible meals and polite conversation to her Paying Guests.

A lot of the book is very witty and funny, and a lot of it is dark.  Dr. Kemble is called on to look into, and testify about, a series of gruesome murders (most involving dismemberment), and when there aren't body parts, there are the ravages of unmentionable little diseases. There are also a series of encounters between Dora and the pathologist, if they are really happening or only wishful thinking (it's not clear at first).

I don't think this will emerge as one of my favorite books for this year, as it was Karen's, but it was a lot of fun to read on the train and in between commutes. And anyway, I love that I can find so many books that I otherwise couldn't have read through work -- I don't think I could have asked for a better perk. :)

1 comment:

Marie said...

it does sound like fun :-)

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