Twelve-year-old Laura begs on the Paris streets in spring 1891. Husband-and-wife aerialists—Ena, and French aeronaut, Auguste Gaudron—take an interest in this American street girl. Laura has a gift for sewing and is taken into the family business of aeronautic shows to sew costumes and hot air balloons. But the real story in this novel does not come fully into view until Laura and the Gaudrons arrive at Cardiff’s Fine Art, Industrial and Maritime Exhibition in 1896, where the Gaudrons are flying. Here is where Munnik dovetails Laura into the true story of Louisa Maud Evans.
Louisa, called Grace, is so drawn to the glamour of high-wire performance that she has pursued Auguste Gaudron to the exhibition. Gaudron’s commitment to making money by parachuting from balloons easily slips into all kinds of risk-taking. These aerialists emerge convincingly from a world of aeronautic endeavour uncomfortably tethered to the trapeze and magic acts of Victorian popular culture. Grace’s story is inlaid into the fictional story of Laura with some finesse. The two girls reflect each other’s circumstances until the choices they make separate them. Munnik’s retelling shows us how the Gaudrons’ hot air balloons rise above unchanging social conditions where the survival of working-class girls turns on a sixpence.
The novel wears its research lightly, immersing the reader in the fin de siècle’s mechanisation of the everyday and the spectacular. But a flying machine or a sewing machine is only as good as its user. This is a sensitive re-imagining of ‘one of those small tragedies which happen’—in Ena Gaudron’s cool words. Munnik movingly conveys the fragility of the real Louisa’s life and afterlife, her rise and fall told by fictional friends and newspaper cuttings.