The Sealed Letter (2008): Emma Donoghue

★★★★

When Emily ‘Fido’ Faithfull bumps into her old friend Helen Codrington, quite by chance, it feels like destiny. The two women haven’t seen one another for years: their once-close friendship came to an awkward end seven years ago, just before Helen and her vice-admiral husband moved to a British naval base in Malta. Now it’s 1864 and sheer good fortune has brought them together on the streets of London. Of course they have changed. Fido has become a passionate reformer and supporter of social justice, earnestly devoted to her work at the Victoria Press. Helen is… well, Helen. Just seeing her again brings the light back into Fido’s life. She is light and cheerful and colourful and perhaps a tiny bit frivolous, but that’s how she’s always been. One thing does trouble Fido, though, and that’s the Scottish Colonel Anderson who seems in such close company with her married friend. When Helen begs Fido for help in dealing with the Colonel’s attentions, Fido leaps to the rescue: to feel needed again, by Helen, is a thrilling feeling. Soon, however, Fido begins to realise how shabbily she has been tricked, and her association with Helen may prove to be her undoing.

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The Wonder (2016): Emma Donoghue

★★★★

A new novel by Emma Donoghue is always cause for celebration, and The Wonder takes us into yet another vividly realised snapshot of history. It is 1859 and Elizabeth (‘Lib’) Wright, a veteran nurse from Florence Nightingale’s army in the Crimea, has been called to Ireland on a curious mission. She knows little about her job except the name of her patient – O’Donnell – and the fact that she is required for only two weeks. Only on her arrival in an impoverished Irish village is she given her commission: a strange task that will force Lib to weigh up faith and reason, to face the griefs of her own past, and to confront the possibility that miracles may genuinely exist.

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Room: Emma Donoghue

★★★★

I’ve avoided reading Room for a long time. Although I enjoyed Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music and Slammerkin, there was something about the subject matter of Room that made, and still makes, me very uneasy. Some people like to explore uncomfortable themes in fiction, but I’m not one of them. On the other hand I don’t want to create some fluffy, pastel-coloured world for myself in which nothing bad ever happens. With the release of the critically acclaimed film last year (which I also haven’t seen), it became more and more imperative that I should read Room. And, in the end, it was both more endearing and more heartbreaking than I expected. It’s a difficult book to review, so bear with me.

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Frog Music: Emma Donoghue

★★★★

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.

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Slammerkin: Emma Donoghue

★★★½

From isolated nuns in medieval Norfolk to the harlots of late Georgian London… an interesting progression. This, the first book by Donoghue that I’ve read, is the tale of Mary Saunders, who goes to ruin for want of a red satin ribbon. Living with her mother, her hated stepfather and her infant stepbrother in a basement room on Charing Cross Road, Mary is troubled by ambition. She is bright and curious and romantic, and wants more from her future than to become a seamstress like her mother and fade into obscurity, poverty and bitterness. Her education at the Charity School has only whetted her appetite for knowledge and her dreams are full of fine clothes and balls and all the stuff of 18th-century romance. Fans, fine carriages and gentlemen might be impossibly remote from Mary’s humble life, but bright colours and billowing skirts are there to be had… at a price.

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