Many readers first became familiar with Emma Donoghue through her much-lauded 2010 novel Room, a harrowing story heartbreakingly narrated by a five-year-old boy held captive for years, along with his mother, in a single room. For readers who know only that novel, Donoghue's latest, Frog Music, might seem like something of a departure. In fact, however, this historical mystery shares many characteristics with Donoghue's earlier works, including the historical novels Slammerkin and The Sealed Letter. Like those novels, Frog Music is exquisitely researched, and, like all Donoghue's work, beautifully written and thoroughly compelling.
As Donoghue reveals in the novel's afterword, Frog Music was inspired by a real-life murder that took place outside San Francisco in 1876, heavily covered by the sensational news media of the day. The victim was a woman known as Jenny Bonnet (or one of various other spellings), a notorious cross-dresser (which was a crime at the time) who made her living catching frogs destined for the table in one of San Francisco's many French and Chinese restaurants.
In the novel, we come to know Jenny through her relationship with Blanche Beaunon, an exotic dancer whose infant son is missing, who is also a part-time prostitute, and former circus performer. Jenny's friendship with Blanche lasts only a matter of weeks, but the changes Jenny prompts Blanche to make in her personal life—particularly with regard to Blanche's missing child and her relationship with the baby's father—could imperil both women.
Frog Music unfolds through two parallel narratives, one of which starts at the moment of Jenny's murder and illustrates Blanche's increasingly desperate attempts to save herself, find her missing child, and uncover Jenny's murderer. The other narrative starts a month earlier, on the day of Jenny and Blanche's initial meeting, and illustrates the development of their relationship up until Jenny's death.
All this plays out against the backdrop of San Francisco in 1876, a city in the grip of a stifling heat wave and a smallpox epidemic that breeds resentment, paranoia, and suspicion. Donoghue brings readers not only the city's sights and smells, but also its sounds, particularly through her characters. Mostly French immigrants, their dialog is sprinkled with salty slang, and through the many French songs whose lyrics are interwoven throughout the narrative (these songs are available for listening via an online playlist). Frog Music is the best kind of historical fiction: as authentic in its emotions and characterizations as it is in its archival details.
Throughout, we see Blanche's evolution from willful ignorance of her absent child's whereabouts and condition to horrified realization of his reality to reluctant acceptance of her role as a mother, despite the potentially tragic effects this new role will have. We also see, after Jenny's death, Blanche's gradual discovery of how little she understood about her dead friend until it was too late to really know her.
Jenny's storyand, to a certain extent, Blanche's ownis one of creating new identities out of choice or necessity, of striving for new beginnings in the wake of loss and tragedy, of trying and sometimes failing to craft new beginnings for oneself. To say that Donoghue brings her roster of historical characters to life in her fiction is to understate the profound humanity and immediacy that she bestows on these figures out of the historical record.
This review was originally published in April 2014, and has been updated for the February 2015 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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