Having enjoyed Slammerkin so much, I was very much looking forward to Emma Donoghue’s new book (all the more so because I’m currently stranded halfway through her Sealed Letter, which I had to give back to the library). Once again the novel is inspired by one of those wonderful pieces of ‘found’ history that she keeps turning up, plucked from the newspapers and scandal-sheets of history, and once again it’s a masterful piece of storytelling: more so, I would say, than Slammerkin in that it manages to keep you absolutely riveted all the way through. It’s a murder mystery where not only the murderer and motive but also the intended victim are uncertain, and you don’t get the full picture until the very final pages, by which point you feel thoroughly immersed in Donoghue’s seedy fin-de-siècle world.
The year is 1876; the place San Francisco, an ambitious, squalid, seamy town on the make where everything is for sale and the inhabitants are remaking themselves as swiftly as the city, which constantly shifts and unfurls, sprawling out across the landscape. Blanche Beunon is twenty-four: an ex-equestrian performer in a Parisian circus, transformed into an exotic dancer and whore in the harsh light of the New World. While she is getting ready for bed in the shabby room she’s temporarily renting with her friend Jenny Bonnet, out at San Miguel Station (effectively, if not literally the end of the line), an unknown gunman creeps up to their window and fires. The bullets miss Blanche, who is bending down to untie her gaiter, but Jenny is riddled with them.
Convinced that she knows the perpetrator and, worse, that she should have been the target, Blanche sets out to prove the murderer’s guilt and avenge Jenny’s death. The journey will force her to review her life during the past month, since the exuberant Jenny first erupted into the comfortable ménage Blanche shares with her lover Arthur and his friend Ernest. Which of the steps she took along the way led irrevocably to this down-at-heel room with the broken window and the shattered body of her friend beside her? And what of this friend, Jenny, whom Blanche has only known a few weeks – and whom, perhaps, she never really knew at all?
There were plenty of very satisfying ideas flying around in this book. Identity, for a start: Blanche, Arthur, Ernest and Jenny have all reformed their own identities. Blanche adopts a glamorous name and persona to hide the seedy realities of her life on the game; while Arthur and Ernest deliberately cultivate themselves as dandies; and the frog-catcher Jenny is not only trying to shrug off her past but also, it seems, her sex. All of them have chosen to grasp the chance to reinvent themselves in this new world; and yet, in the end, they will find that this is a society already on the cusp of retrenchment, as the veneer of the ‘land of opportunity’ peels away to reveal the same old bigoted world beneath.
The other driving theme is love, not just the passionate, romantic kind, but all the complex, strangling, awkward kinds that can bind people together as lovers, friends, parents and children, or in some form that doesn’t play by any of the rules. In some ways, Blanche is trapped at the centre of a web formed by the obligations of love (or what masquerades as it), gradually working herself into a corner as she finds that she can’t give more love in one direction without failing someone else. Ultimately, directly or indirectly, this will have fatal consequences.
Where Donoghue shines in this novel is in her creation of the atmosphere. You really begin to feel the vertiginous streets of San Francisco; the cloying heat; the fear of the smallpox epidemic and the growing need to blame someone – anyone. The mood is claustrophobic and suffocating, with the epidemic offering a very apt setting for Blanche’s own growing feelings of fear and paranoia. It’s wonderful stuff and I’ll be quite frank: I enjoyed the book much more than I expected to, because the period and location really aren’t my usual stamping grounds. Both the world and the characters feel completely convincing: Blanche and those around her all have their flaws and their strengths and, while I couldn’t quite give my heart to any of them, I nevertheless felt that they were powerful and absolutely real.
There were moments which were a bit too explicit for me, but that’s an entirely personal matter and in any case it’s justified by the subject matter, so I can hardly cavil too much. Throughout, Donoghue gives the impression of being completely in control of her world: there is even a splendid author’s note at the back where she plunges into the kind of deep detail that always adds an extra dimension to a good historical novel. She not only explains the records which she tied together to create her story, weighing up the evidence and explaining her narrative decisions, but she also goes to the trouble of providing a list of songs featured in the book and other helpful information.
And so, to sum up, this was an unexpectedly enjoyable treat (although, knowing Donoghue’s calibre, I should have known I’d enjoy it regardless). Knowing nothing about the setting, I was entirely sucked into this tense, oppressive vision of San Francisco’s rough infancy and, once again, I’m in awe of her talent to recreate these little fragments of history into full-blooded, absorbing stories, and to resurrect some fascinating characters from the past. Certainly something to look out for if you’re a historical fiction fan.
Incidentally, Helen has also reviewed Frog Music, so do pop over to She Reads Novels for another take on the book.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley, in return for a fair and honest review.