Emma Donoghue Reading List
Emma Donoghue likes to get beneath the surfaces of women’s lives to see what lies beneath. Sometimes they are women in the here-and-now; more often, as with The Wonder, they are women from the past. Her writing is vivid, suspenseful and at times disturbing, but you will never be bored reading an Emma Donoghue books.
While Donoghue has written short stories and essays, it’s her novels that have earned her the most praise and attention. Here are five of the most notable:
Slammerkin is set 18th century England, and it’s about a bad, bad girl – Mary, the daughter of a seamstress, who is infected by a lust for fine clothes, an 18th century fashionista without the budget to support her habit.
After Mary loses her virginity, exchanging her favors for a beautiful red ribbon, she gets pregnant. She is kicked out of the house by her mother, plunging our heroine into some very bad times indeed. Then she falls in with a successful prostitute, and becomes a highly successful prostitute herself. She wants a respectable life, a tricky business in her world. This book is a bawdy and convincing portrait of life in 18th century England and a look at the challenges one boisterous young woman faced in trying to make her own way.
Though Mary was an entirely fictional creation, in Life Mask, Donoghue based her characters on people who really lived. Set in the late 1700s, it’s the story of Anne Damer, a single woman who receives a bequest from a relative that frees her to pursue her real passion, sculpting (an unexpected bequest is such a staple of English novels – in this case it actually happened!).
The real Anne Damer was a widow who acquired a “Lady friend” with whom she lived happily into old age – of course this was scandalous behavior for the time, and gossips had a field day. Donoghue recreates her life, peopling it with the actors, politicians, and artists of Damer’s day. There’s no imagined plot to drive events, so Life Mask is a leisurely and entertaining walk through a long-ago time, a portrait of people of that era who colored outside the lines.
Donoghue’s breakout novel Room was the book that put her squarely in the eye of the reading public. It’s a stunner. Room is told from the point of view of Jack, a five-year-old boy living in a 11-by-11 foot room with his mother. They have a close and loving relationship – his mother creates a routine with Jack that ensures that he is happy and occupied. Because the story is narrated by a child, it only gradually becomes apparent that he and his mother are being held against their will. To say any more would spoil the suspense. While it has elements of a thriller, this is a story of a mother-child relationship that will stay with you for long time.
After Room, Donoghue returned to historical novel territory with The Sealed Letter, a tale of a 19th century scandal. The wife of a vice-admiral is flinging herself at various admirers in London, and a ‘new woman’, who owns a printing press and who aspires to more in life decorating the arm of a vice admiral, is drawn into the fray. Then the husband decides to file for divorce, and the complications begin. The Sealed Letter intertwines the story of two very different women at a pivotal point in English history.
Finally, I want to briefly mention Donoghue’s novel Frog Music, where she applied passion for history to a story set in 19th century California. Set in post-Gold Rush San Francisco, it’s the story of circus-girl sometime-prostitute Blanche, who is trying to balance parenthood with surviving in a seedy, dog-eat-dog world.
Then Blanche’s great friend Jenny is murdered, and Frog Music becomes a sophisticated mystery. As with Agatha Christie’s work, the whodunit construction of this novel permits Donoghue to range through all the layers of San Francisco society of that era. Historical events, including a heat wave and a smallpox epidemic, also drive the plot.