Three days, three women, one impossible task: the Great Flu.
Set in a hospital Maternity/Fever ward during the 1918 pandemic, in poverty stricken war torn Ireland, right after the devastation of the First World War, this story is not surprisingly quite dark and dismal, and yet is also full of life, light, and hope. Nurse Julia Powers works in a small three bed ward of patients who are both pregnant and fighting the flu. She is helped by a a spunky volunteer named Bridie Sweeney who becomes both a valuable assistant and a special friend as together they minister to those in need without much supply or support. Emma Donoghue has once again created a compulsively readable novel set with only a few characters who are trapped together in a very small space, as she did with Room and The Wonder and Akin.
It is a happy coincidence that this, her latest book, was published exactly during another pandemic, and I was almost reluctant at first to read it because of that. But reading a book on a pandemic during a pandemic was not nearly as difficult as it might seem, given Donoghue’s deft writing skills, and was actually interesting to compare. There was a lot of commonality with challenging public health leadership and health care workers being both at risk and short-staffed. “The human race settles on terms with every plague in the end, the doctor told her. Or a stalemate at least. We somehow muddle along, sharing the earth with each new form of life…a creature with no malign intention, only a craving to reproduce itself, much like our own.”
Eighty-year old Noah is about to embark on a trip to his birthplace Nice to discover some things about his past, especially about how his family was affected by the war. But he ends up having to pack more baggage than he bargained for. Just before he leaves on the trip to France, Noah is contacted by a social worker who thinks he is the only living relative who can take custody of an 11 year old grand-nephew he has never met, and save him from foster care. Michael needs a guardian for a time until his mother is released from jail. With no options for postponing Michael’s arrival or postponing his trip, Noah decides to take Michael along to Nice, and the adventure begins! Noah is a retired chemistry professor, who has never had children and has lost his wife and Michael is a cocky but vulnerable preteen who has been raised in poor circumstances and has already sustained significant loss in his young life.
Part historical fiction and part comedy, this odd couple set out on a journey which is funny, poignant, and albeit a bit slow, very gently entertaining. The two manage to help each other and irritate each other in oh so many ways, but together they pursue the mystery of what happened to Noah’s mother during the war and forge an unlikely companionship. The story is in no way sentimental or twee, it has a real feel, and in Donoghue’s capable hands is fresh and original.
Donoghue likes to draw from her own experience in her writing, in this case the inspiration for the book came from a couple of years she spent living in Nice with her French speaking partner and their children. Donoghue says she likes to get material for her novels from her children, as she did with Room when her child was 5. Now she has teens and it feels like she took every example of how tweens can be annoying and put them into Michael. 🙂 Although he does redeem himself on more than one occasion, and Noah continually reminds himself that Michael is a good kid, and just needs to be given a chance, considering his upbringing. On the trip they discover that life is full of risk in any generation and every era is marked by love and loss. Here’s a link to a more comprehensive Guardian review: click here.
“Once upon a time, a man from Delhi and a man from Yukon fell in love, and so did a woman from Jamaica and a Mohawk woman. The two couples became best friends and had a baby together. When they won the lottery, they gave up their jobs and found a big old house where their family could learn and grow…and grow some more.
Now Sumac Lottery (age nine) is the fifth of seven kids, all named after trees. With their four parents and five pets, they fit perfectly in the Toronto home they call Camelottery.
But one thing in life that never changes…is that sooner or later things change.”
Emma Donoghue has written her first book for children. It is a quirky, romp of a story about diversity and family, with non-preachy life lessons about inclusiveness and unconditional love. This modern-day hippy, environmental, cooperative family home-schools, volunteers, has several ‘rescue-pets’ and gets creative about just about everything. But how accommodating can this otherwise amazingly flexible family be when their grandfather moves in? He’s the one from the Yukon who they’ve never met and seems so grumpy. Sumac, the narrator of the story, is horrified to learn that he’ll be taking her room on the first floor and he has something called dementia.
Every family has “inside jokes” in the form of silly words or nicknames, and Donoghue goes all out with that kind of wordplay in this book. The Dads are PapaDum and PopCorn, the Moms are CardaMum and MaxiMum, family meeting are ‘Fleetings’…you get the picture. There are WAY too many wordplays which at times interrupted the flow and made me stumble in the reading. I feel really conflicted about this book because I love the idea of it but found it hard to read.
Undoubtedly there is an amazing message to young readers…people and families come in all shapes and sizes and colours and types and this definitely is something to be celebrated and normalized, but the author packed in WAY too much which really bogged the story down. In contrast, her portrayal of a five year old boy in Room was so much more simply authentic and well fleshed out–these characters just felt like silly caricatures, which then kinda defeats the purpose. I think unfortunately, she had more fun writing it than anyone will have reading it–a book with a great premise but a lost opportunity in the end.
Note: Royalties from this project go to Room to Read, a nonprofit working in literacy and girls’ education across communities in Asia and Africa.
On the Giller Prize 2016 shortlist, this latest book by Irish/Canadian author Emma Donoghue (author of Room), features Elizabeth (Lib) Wright, a dedicated and talented former “Florence Nightingale nurse.” Being summoned from England for a special job, Lib finds herself in the midst of a difficult case in rural Ireland, post potato famine. It’s actually interesting to note that this novel is set primarily in one small room as well, with a woman and child at the centre.
Eleven year old Anna O’Donnell has refused food for 4 months and yet appears to be in miraculously good health. In The Wonder, Donoghue explores through historical fiction, the phenomenon of the “fasting girls.” Fasting Girls were adolescent girls in the 1700-1800s who were hailed as marvels for surviving without food, giving them special religious or magical powers. Lib’s job is to observe the girl to help a committee decide if she is a celebrity wonder or if there is something fraudulent or sinister at work. At first it seems a straightforward enough task, but as she becomes more involved she fears for Anna’s life. Is Anna the victim of slow motion murder?
This is a hugely atmospheric novel, short and easy to read, and compelling because of the setting, complete with murky Irish bogs, family secrets, gossip, creepy religious men, and a little romance for good measure. There’s a lot more to this novel than the simple solid story: English snobbery vs. Irish tradition, Catholic vs. Protestant, science vs. faith, and women vs. men. The author really made me care about the characters and it was a page turner in that sense, although not much happens outside of the central mystery: what is going on with Anna and why does she so stalwartly continue to refuse food? The pacing does pick up in the last half and I must say I still can’t decide if I found the ending brilliant or deeply clichéd. I think it might be the latter, but I’d love to know what you think.
This original tale just leaps off the page. It is based on the true story of an unsolved murder of a frog catcher in San Francisco during a rare heat wave in 1876. A smallpox epidemic hits at the same time. It is an unusual but compelling piece of historical fiction, impeccably researched and entertainingly told.
Jenny Bonnet literally bumps into Blanche on the street while riding her high wheeler bicycle one day, and the encounter results in a unique friendship between the two women. Blanche is an exotic dancer, and works in a brothel. Her lover Arthur and his friend Ernest squander her earnings and form an odd ‘menage a trois’, until Jenny arrives on the scene and changes all of their lives forever. It is no spoiler to say that Jenny is shot in a grimy bar on the outskirts of town, because it happens on the third page.
Donoghue wittily captures the raucous atmosphere of this seedy, sticky and unhygienic world of San Francisco’s Chinatown, with the same panache and precision as she captured the claustrophobia in a small shed in Room. As an author she doesn’t believe in pages and pages of description, so the characters’ lives tell the story which keeps it moving. The dance tunes are woven seamlessly into the novel and further notes on them are given at the back. There is a glossary of French phrases given as well.
‘Frog Music’ is fiction but is completely based on true events. Only a few minor characters were invented. There are raw and crude scenes which may be a bit much for some, but are part of the story and the author handles them well. The appalling conditions that some women and children had to endure was admittedly hard to read, but the spirited determination of Blanche and Jenny is uplifting.
The book is sort of like “French bohemian meets the Wild West” – a quirky time and place which I enjoyed learning about, all wrapped up in an intriguing murder mystery! C’est si bon!