By Connie Ogle
Emma Donoghue’s latest novel has many facets, all of them fascinating. Like her short-story collection Astray and her novel Slammerkin, Frog Music is a detailed historical drama, this time set in the festering boomtown of San Francisco in 1876. Like her hair-raising best-seller Room, it incorporates the elements of a thriller.
Best of all, there’s Donoghue’s familiar and intricate examination of women in impossible circumstances, bound to repugnant men for survival but never broken by them.
Frog Music is based on a true story, the unsolved murder of a cross-dressing frog catcher named Jeanne Bonnet, here called Jenny. (If you can resist the phrase “cross-dressing frog catcher,” you really need to examine your lack of curiosity.) Jenny is shot through the window of a boarding house in the opening pages, in the company of Blanche Beunon, a burlesque dancer and prostitute.
Inspired by an account of this crime she read years ago, Donoghue puts her formidable, eloquent mark on it. In her version, Blanche’s survival seems random chance: She’s only spared because she bent down to untangle her gaiters. She has known Jenny for only a few weeks when she dies, and their friendship has hit a difficult spot.
Still, Blanche grieves, and her sorrow gives way to outrage. She spends the next several days trying to track down Jenny’s killer, sure she was the intended victim. Her main suspects are her estranged, dandified lover Arthur and his sidekick Ernest, freeloaders and former acrobats who gamble away Blanche’s earnings. Furious at her refusal to work so she can care for her infant son, they spirit the child away, leaving a frantic Blanche to search for him, too.
Blanche acts as a guide through the seamy city by the bay, which is undergoing a brutal heat wave and a smallpox outbreak. Both plagues have set the citizens on edge, as have long-simmering tensions against Chinese workers filling the city’s tenements. Cultural disgust is universal, though, as Blanche, a French immigrant, is disgusted by a family of Irish saloonkeepers.
Donoghue revisits an older and in some ways more horrifying version of the shed where a small boy grows up captive in Room, exposing the shocking practice of baby farming, in which unsavory individuals are paid to take in unwanted infants — and then neglect them. “How many will she find stacked in each crib, alive in name only, sucking on what — milk watered down to cloudy water? Glazed-eyed and crone-faced, tiny bones showing through translucent skin?”
But rescuing her child from this hell is no easier than leaving him to die. Donoghue isn’t blind to the demands of motherhood, and some of the best sequences involve the impatient, inexperienced Blanche, used to catering to the dark tastes of men, trying to decipher the whims of a baby.
Colorful French slang and period songs flow through the novel lyrically, making the era as vital as the plot. Donoghue is as acrobatic with her storytelling and language as Arthur and Ernest were flying high above their audience, and she paints the stinking city vividly.
Gradually, a second question emerges. The mystery isn’t merely about who shot Jenny; there’s also the question of the person Blanche will become. Will she stay a prostitute? Or will she break free from the men controlling her?
Jenny had told her, “If you meet an obstacle you can jump free.” She’s talking about riding the bicycle on crowded city streets, but by end, Blanche sees another, more important lesson. “[N]ot always,” Blanche thinks. “You have to allow for some damage.” Damaged or not, she has a choice, one that will keep you riveted as you make your way through this vibrant and remarkable novel.