LIFE MASK by Emma Donoghue (Virago), 613 pages, $35 cloth. Rating: NNNNN
Emma Donaghue writes historical novels, but her issues are always cutting-edge.
Her new novel, Life Mask, set in London, England, spans the years between 1787 and 1797, detailing the personal and political lives of some fascinating characters.
This is the period that spawned the word "terrorist." Extremists in the French Revolution have triggered repressive measures by the British government just when Lord Derby and his political cronies are hoping to curtail the powers of the British monarchy.
In the meantime, Derby wants Eliza Farren, London's most famed stage comedienne, to be his official mistress - the kind who's acknowledged in social circles. But her growing awareness of the things guys get to do that women don't fills her with outrage.
Besides, her friendship with the sculptor Anne Damer is deepening. Soon, they're the cause of a public scandal fuelled by London's voracious tabloids - another theme with contemporary resonance - that could send both their careers into the tank.
Like Donoghue's previous novel, Slammerkin, a story of seamstresses, ambition and power, Life Mask is based on and inspired by real people and has been meticulously researched. We get an insider's view on how late-18th-century Londoners talked and what they talked about. And Donoghue's informed imaginings of what went on behind the scenes on the London stage are a gas.
Life Mask also has a sexy, almost soapy quality - and I say that not dismissively but with appreciation.
Especially in its portrait of the friendship between Anne and Eliza, Life Mask is reminiscent of Tipping The Velvet (not for nothing was Donoghue very present at Sarah Waters's 2003 Toronto reading), but its political content is even stronger than that in Waters's Dickensian fables, and Donoghue overlays a more pointed commentary on the sexual politics of the time.
Don't be intimidated by the length; this is a real page-turner.
One of the best books of 2004.