As part of the Varuna & Sydney Writers’ Festival on Monday 19th May, acclaimed author Emma Donoghue appeared with her new novel in conversation with Kate Fagan.
This was a really enjoyable session – not only is Emma Donoghue thoroughly engaging, but the added interviewing mastery of Kate Fagan made me want the session to go on a little longer – by at least an hour!
Emma’s newest novel, Frog Music takes a different turn away from her last novel Room, which was nominated for the Man Booker Prize (more about that below). Frog Music is an historical murder mystery through the eyes of French immigrant Blanche Beunon, a burlesque dancer.
Summary: Summer of 1876: San Francisco is in the fierce grip of a record-breaking heat wave and a smallpox epidemic. Through the window of a railroad saloon, a young woman called Jenny Bonnet is shot dead. The survivor, her friend Blanche Beunon, is a French burlesque dancer. Over the next three days, she will risk everything to bring Jenny’s murderer to justice – if he doesn’t track her down first.
The story Blanche struggles to piece together is one of free-love Bohemians, desperate paupers and arrogant millionaires; of jealous men, icy women and damaged children. It’s the secret life of Jenny herself, a notorious character who breaks the law every morning by getting dressed: a charmer as slippery as the frogs she hunts.
In thrilling, cinematic style, Frog Music digs up a long-forgotten, never-solved crime. Full of songs that migrated across the world, Emma Donoghue’s lyrical tale of love and bloodshed captures the pulse of a boom town like no other.
→Having migrated herself, Emma Donoghue has a fascination with migration. She talks of immigrants who are granted a fresh start in a new world, yet still bring their cultural history with them. She has an interest in historical people and the stories hidden within the records of our past. When she came across proceedings about the unsolved murder of a Jenny, a frog-catching cross dressing woman (who was often arrested for simply wearing pants), and Blanche, and a French burlesque dancer – and mix this in with the slightly bohemian culture of 19th century San Francisco, Emma was hooked by the sound of it! She delved deeply into the recorded lives of Jenny and Blanche, and when her investigations came to a dead-end that was when she applied her literary talents to creating the story in between.
Summary: To five-year-old Jack, Room is the entire world. It is where he was born and grew up; it’s where he lives with his Ma as they learn and read and eat and sleep and play. At night, his Ma shuts him safely in the wardrobe, where he is meant to be asleep when Old Nick visits.
Room is home to Jack, but to Ma, it is the prison where Old Nick has held her captive for seven years. Through determination, ingenuity, and fierce motherly love, Ma has created a life for Jack. But she knows it’s not enough…not for her or for him. She devises a bold escape plan, one that relies on her young son’s bravery and a lot of luck. What she does not realize is just how unprepared she is for the plan to actually work.
Told entirely in the language of the energetic, pragmatic five-year-old Jack, ROOM is a celebration of resilience and the limitless bond between parent and child, a brilliantly executed novel about what it means to journey from one world to another
→Emma talked of many things, including mother-love, breast-feeding, the amazing things that come out of the mouths of children and writing through the naive eyes of a 5-year-old child who, like most 5 year olds, is completely accepting of his situation – which is – the room where he is locked in with his mother. She didn’t want the story to be written from an adults point of view, as this would have revealed too much of the horror of the situation, and chose to show the world through Jacks eyes.
Not only am I looking forward to reading both books, but I am looking forward to listening to Emma’s thoughts at Walsh Bay for ‘The Madonna: Whore and other Fictions’ on Friday 23rd at 3pm. With a panel including Kate Ceberano, Tara Moss, Nakkiah Lui, they talk with Tracy Spicer about the many labels given to women – this should be really interesting.
See the Sydney Writers’ Festival program for Emma Donoghue’s Sydney events which includes the Closing Address on Sunday May 25th at the Sydney Theatre. As we were having our books signed by Emma I enquired about her other events – she mentioned (with her ever-present smile) that she hadn’t written the closing address – yet. She wanted to experience the Festival first – I am sure with her way with words it will be a fantastic close to what is already another amazing festival.