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Book Review: The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits by Emma Donoghue (3/5)

11 Jun

I’m not a big fan of short story collections. This was a switch from a novel for my book club that happened last minute because of availability. I don’t think it’s something I would have picked otherwise. I’m writing this review before our group meets. Maybe they’ll change my mind. Though I find it hard to discuss short story collections.

Cover image via Goodreads

The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits by Emma Donoghue

Summary from Goodreads:

Emma Donoghue, celebrated author of Slammerskin, vividly animates hidden scraps of the past in this remarkable collection. An engraving of a woman giving birth to rabbits, a plague ballad, theological pamphlets, and an articulated skeleton are ingeniously fleshed out into rollicking tales. Whether she’s spinning the tale of a soldier tricked into marrying a dowdy spinster, or a Victorian surgeon’s attempts to “improve” women, Donoghue fills us with the sights and smells of the period as she summons the ghosts of ordinary people, bringing them to unforgettable life in fiction.

Some of these I enjoyed and others just frustrated me. Donoghue was inspired by odd bits of trivia she found while reading and some of the stories didn’t seem to have a plot, they just served to explain the odd thing Donoghue had read. Dido’s story had real depth to it. ‘Come, Gentle Night’ made no sense until you read the author’s note at the end. I didn’t like the stories where the note made the plot. In those cases, I felt like the note should have been at the beginning or the story should have been longer.

Donoghue drew rather believable people. None had too much of a story that I could sympathize with them or pass much judgment on how believable they were. There were a lot of women who suffered for their gender and the time period they lived in. This felt real to me. I think a lot of her focus is on how women were oppressed and she wanted to share a bit of their stories when history had ignored them.

Emma Donoghue
Image via Goodreads

‘Dido’ was my favorite story. Maybe it’s because of the racism discussions going on in my country, but this felt very relevant despite the setting. It reminded me of a movie I watched 10 years ago, Amazing Grace, about the abolition of the slave trade in England. I thought it was really powerful how Dido recognized her special status and used it to help someone else.

None of the characters was very relatable to me. Many of them were set in a very removed time period and I didn’t get enough to connect with them. The one that was more modern was an immortal witch, so that didn’t help.

None of the stories were disagreeable or I disliked them. Many just didn’t grab my attention and keep me interested for very long. The short story is not a format I enjoy and these seemed shorter than most. They shone a light on very overlooked parts of history and the notes at the end added a lot of depth and research to the stories. They just weren’t for me.

Women were written out of much of history. They’ve resigned themselves to footnotes in obscure texts like those Donoghue used to inspire her for many of these stories. The voices of women aren’t recorded, but logic would have you believe they were important. These women were written off, but they influenced many men and in some cases made a difference. I liked how Donoghue gave voices to the silenced. I think some could have been longer stories.

Writer’s Takeaway: This is not a genre for me and I’ve known that for quite a while. I don’t find short stories often give the reader enough about the subject to connect. Some of these stories felt like fragments of a larger story. Others felt complete. I think the difference was when Donoghue had more context than the reader. She had read some scrap of history that explained the split a little better. Without that context, the reader was lost. I think some of her history notes would have been better off at the beginning of the stories.

Enjoyable in small bursts, but not a genre for me. Three out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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