Book review: Frog Music

frog music by emma donoghue 29-3-14I came to this book knowing nothing about it other than it was written by Emma Donoghue who wrote Room. So it was something of a surprise to discover Frog Music is a historical crime story set in San Francisco in 1876 and loosely based on true events.

I loved it. Every page pulses with the colour of the time. In the summer of 1876, San Francisco is a vibrant and bustling city living through an intense heatwave and smallpox epidemic. Donoghue starts her story with the murder of Jenny Bonnet, frog-catcher, who is shot through an open window. Her friend Blanche Beunon, a burlesque dancer, must find the murderer and avoid being killed herself, whilst tracking down her own missing baby. The pace is fast and San Francisco is portrayed as a third character; switching from the bawdy House of Mirrors where Blanche dances, to smelly noisy Chinatown where she lives.

The notion of chance is explored. What if the two women had never met. One day, Blanche is knocked down in the street by a young man on a bicycle. “Black anterlish handbars, that’s all she has time to glimpse before the gigantic spokes are swallowing her skirts.” Except it is not a young man, it is a young woman wearing trousers. Jenny continues to dress this way despite being pursued by the law and attracting disapproval wherever she goes. To the end, Jenny remains a bit of a mystery to Blanche and to the reader, “…As if Jenny has a prickly city self who gets into slanging matches in bars, and a country self who’s at rest, somehow.”

Donoghue [below] tells the story in two parallel threads which alternate. First is the story of Jenny’s death at San Miguel Station, a dusty settlement outside the city, and Blanche’s struggle to identify the murderer. The second narrative tells how the two women met and the events which occurr before they arrive at the rural saloon where the murder takes place. Blanche is not an amateur detective, she is simply a woman who sees her friend murdered. She is determined to find the murderer, before the murderer kills her.

[photo: Punch Photographic]

[photo: Punch Photographic]

Blanche moves in a world on the edge of society, just a day’s work from hunger or homelessness. The line between hunger and honesty, deceit or crime and a full stomach, is one Blanche becomes familiar with. She wants a better life, as a woman she is ambitious and saves her money, but her life choices make her vulnerable and her decisions come back to haunt her.

This is a very assured creation of a colourful period in history, peppered with French influence, dialect and songs.
‘Frog Music’ by Emma Donoghue [Picador 2014]

Click here to visit Emma Donoghue’s website
To watch the book trailer for Frog Music, click here

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