I found out after finishing this book, as I listened to a short NPR interview with Emma Donoghue, that she’d based her latest story on a true crime that took place in California in 1876: “On the very outskirts of San Francisco, in a grimy bar, a lot of bullets came through a window and they killed one woman in the room, Jenny Bonnet, who was a professional frog catcher. And they left the other woman, Blanche Beunon, a burlesque dancer, unharmed”, she told the interviewer. Basing herself on numerous court transcripts and newspaper articles, she found material which was too good to make up; the city was in the middle of a major heatwave and a devastating smallpox epidemic; the victim Jenny Bonnet was a professional frog-catcher who sold her goods to local restaurants and wore men’s clothes, which was a punishable offence in the city of San Francisco and landed her in jail numerous times. The other woman, Blanche Beunon was a French immigrant who made her living as a burlesque dancer and prostitute. These two women, along with the city of San Francisco itself, a ramshackle place quickly thrown together by “miners, restaurateurs and prostitutes” are Donoghue’s main characters, from which she fleshed out her story, creating plausible lives for the two women and imagining how the two might have crossed paths and come to be in that room together on the fatal night.
The main character is Blanche, who at first is content with her life, making men drool and throw money at her feet with her naughty stage acts and ‘michetons’, the rich customers she charges healthy fees for sexual favours. But when Jenny Bonnet literally slams into her with her outlandish machine, in the form of a large front-wheel bicycle, and the two unconventional women start developing a friendship, questions raised by Jenny force Blanche to look at her life from a new perspective. Donoghue, while not condoning nor condemning prostitution, raises question about how it affects women’s lives in the larger picture. In this case, Blanche has had a baby by her French boyfriend, who abhors the ‘Bourgeois’ but has no qualms comfortably living off her earnings, and who had arranged for the newborn to be farmed out to “Angel Makers”, a form of childcare for desperate parents known as such because the children are likely to die from neglect. Up until her encounter with Jenny, Blanche had conveniently put the whole matter out of her mind and never visited the place where her child was kept, imagining, as she was led to believe, that the child lived in the fresh air of a country farm, away from city pollution and dirt. But from the sudden shocking awareness of what Petit’s living conditions have actually been for the first year of his life, a mother’s love will force her to make difficult choices which will have repercussions on many lives.
I read Donoghue’s Slammerkin many years ago, and must say I haven’t had the courage to broach Room yet, but in this new novel, she returns in good form to one of my favourite genres and delivers a historical fiction novel that crackles with life and realistic details and characters, and makes for a really great yarn from beginning to end, for what is a basically an unputdownable read.
I’ve listened to Khristine Hvam narrate other books before and while she is a good narrator, my beef with her is that she seems to have just one cookie-cutter foreign accent which I’ve heard her use for both Czech and French accents most unconvincingly. Of course, in my case, being a fluent French speaker, a bad French accent is bound to grate on the ears, and in this case, since the main protagonist is French, there is a lot of grating to be endured, but to Hvam’s credit, the delivery was good enough for this to be a minor quibble and didn’t take away from my overall enjoyment of this audiobook. Definitely recommended.