Emma Donoghue, Irish-born, Canadian-settled, became world famous for her 2010 novel, Room, which Hollywood adapted to a successful film. She has since solidified her reputation with Frog Music and The Wonder, but she's no overnight success. As devoted readers know, Room was preceded by almost twenty years of dramas, short stories, novels, and literary history. She also has edited two lesbian-themed anthologies. Perhaps her most intriguing work, prior to 2010, is this collection of short fiction based on oddities of British and Irish history.
The title story refers, as students of history will know, to the notorious case of Mary Toft, an eighteenth-century British woman who convinced people, against all reason, that she had birthed bunnies. Doctors initially confirmed her story and she received a pension. Donoghue examined the numerous contradictory accounts and records and then developed a first-person narration that creates a version of a woman who might have become involved in such a fantastic (and uncomfortable) hoax.
And so it goes. One story seeks to explain a minor mystery in Mary Wollstonecraft's life. Another chronicles an old woman's involvement in the Peasants' Revolt. Donoghue explores the source behind a macabre ballad and the private doings of Effie Gray and John Ruskin. Criminals and prophets have their truths revealed, or, some version of their truths. Most tales remain grounded, though there is one which takes a turn into the fantastic. After each story, a short passage addresses the author's sources, both celebrated and obscure. Donoghue weaves fiction from footnotes.
The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits lacks the broader appeal of her more recent works, but those interested in what might be lurking in history's obscure corners will find much to enjoy.