Author: Emma Donoghue, 2014.
Genre: Historical Fiction. 19th Century California. True Crime/Mystery
Other Details: Large Print Soft back. 544 pages.
Summer of 1876: San Francisco is in the fierce grip of a record-breaking heatwave 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. - synopsis from author's website.
In this novel Emma Donoghue mixes historical fiction with true crime by utilising a sensational unsolved murder of the period. The narrative weaves between the events that lead up to the shooting of Jenny Bonnet and the few days following as Blanche seeks to find answers as well as to avoid becoming a victim herself.. Each chapter also contains the lyrics of bawdy songs of the period and at the end of the novel there is an appendix that contains the sources for these along with information about their history. Donoghue also includes notes about her sources. It was clear she researched the period and details of the murder in depth.
I came to this novel with few expectations and just found it too much. While I certainly appreciated that the majority of the novel's characters did exist and admired the discipline involved in writing a novel relying on the often sketchy accounts available I found some of the details rather off-putting. I could appreciate that she did not want to glamorize the life a a 19th Century prostitute or to minimize the conditions of baby farms yet was it really necessary to be quite so graphic? Perhaps it was in order to be authentic yet it made for uncomfortable reading.
I also found it hard to relate to the characters. Jenny Bonnet was sympathetic yet remained more a supporting character while Blanche Beunon took centre stage. I had little time for Blanche. Her relationship with Arthur was inexplicable to me. Still I have always found this kind of dependency upon a parasitical male difficult to understand. She was so impulsive and it felt like the bad choices she made left her in situations where she lost everything. I wanted to shake her. She seemed to have zero street smarts which seemed odd for a woman who had made her way in the world for so long. So overall while I didn;t hate it, the novel was just not my thing.