Emma Donoghue,
Life Mask
(Harvest, 2005)

This is a book to lose yourself in. The characters are well drawn and the atmosphere of London in the late 18th century is so lifelike you will smell the streets.

The characters in Life Mask are in the main real people who populated the most important city on Earth in a time of great change. This is the one instance where I would advise a reader to flick to the back pages before starting to read. There you will find six pages of names of the characters, along with biographical details of the real people. This can only help you to better appreciate the machinations, trials and tribulations that burst forth in the 600-plus pages of narrative.

Emma Donoghue has created a fantastic story here from a few historical facts that intrigued her. She draws the reader into the world of theatre with Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and of gambling with Lord Derby, whose name survives today in the annual horse race.

The strength of the book is that although the characters are in many ways larger than life, she brings their intimate details to light. In so doing she makes these historical, often two-dimensional footnotes of history into real people. We can feel their triumph and loss.

The character of Eliza Farren is particularly well drawn, and we soon understand the tribulations of a girl in that era who is not high born but has the possibility of entering a new stratum of society. We witness her hopes and their limitations as she acutely assesses how far she might push things. In a parallel, we meet Anne Damer an artist.

The etiquette of relationships is fascinating, with a marriage in name only being maintained. Then there is the possibility of a whole world coming apart at the seams as Eliza and Anne become more than friends.

The story will fascinate the reader, as will the great attention to history that permeates the novel. This is one of those books that cries out for being turned into a film but will always be remembered as a truly great read.

by Nicky Rossiter
22 July 2006

Buy it from Amazon.com.