Reading an Emma Donoghue book is like falling into a deep friendship with an unlikely stranger: a lady of the evening, a cross-dressing frogcatcher, an imprisoned child. The author’s empathy for outsiders makes for captivating characters; she illustrates the complex inner lives of her creations with a candor that shows humanity at its best and worst. Here are three books of Donoghue’s — including her eighth novel, the new “Frog Music” — worth getting tangled up in. When you come up for air, hear her speak at Politics & Prose on Saturday.
A shot rings out in 1876 and cross-dressing, gun-toting frogcatcher Jenny Bonnet is dead. (This bit isn’t fiction; the San Francisco murder remains unsolved.) A few feet away, her friend, celebrated French showgirl Blanche Beunon, is bewildered and terrified. Her stumbling search for Jenny’s killer will keep the reader hooked, but Donoghue’s great triumph in “Frog Music” is her depiction of San Francisco. From the bustling back alleys of Chinatown to the city’s desolate outskirts, Donoghue’s San Francisco, seedy and libertine and vital, holds as much power over its citizens as they do over each other.
YOU’LL NEED: Google Translate, best used in a private browser window. Pardon the NSFW French.
The reader cannot be emotionally prepared enough for “Room.” Donoghue’s Man Booker Prize finalist is narrated by 5-year-old Jack, raised by an abducted woman in a tiny concrete shack. Bittersweet moments — Ma and Jack play “Phys Ed” games to keep their muscles strong, and do daily chores to keep despair at bay — contrast with the dizzying climax, when the pair risk all to break free from their oppressor. Donoghue’s narrative ingenuity shines in her nuanced imagining of the powerful codependency between a young mother striving for hope and her innocent, courageous son.
YOU’LL NEED: Tissues, most of the time, and a paper bag to breathe into, some of the time.
In the year 1760, 13-year-old Mary Saunders of London finds herself seeking a more exciting life at any cost. And the cost will be steep, as her path leads her to sully her reputation and risk her life as a teen prostitute. Fierce, ambitious and flawed, Mary is enchanting and exasperating all at once. The reader hopes for the best and braces for the worst as she moves from schoolyard to city square to country town, trying to improve her lot in life. Like Jenny in “Frog Music,” Mary is based on a real woman.
YOU’LL NEED: A comfortable chair. Even when Mary’s at her most teenage-rebellious, the reader can’t abandon her without knowing if she’s finally grasped the edges of her lofty, irrepressible ambitions.
Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW; Sat., 6 p.m., free; 202-364-1919. (Van Ness)