Frog Music

The Room author manages to make an historical murder mystery feel fresh and full of life.

Frog Music is not Emma Donoghue’s second novel. (It is, in fact, her eighth.) But it is the follow-up to 2010’s wildly successful Room, and so it comes with that horrible second-novel pressure: Can she do it again?

Like millions of other people, I read and loved Room, and that compelled me to pick up this novel. For the first chapter or two, I stubbornly clung to the comparison. This isn’t as innovative, I thought. This is in third person, not first. This is set in the 19th century, not the modern day. I’m not as hooked. I haven’t even cried yet.

But, before too long, I forgot about Room and found myself swept up in the intoxicating world of 1870s San Francisco.

Frog Music is based on the true story of Jenny Bonnet, a high-spirited young woman who was notorious for wearing men’s clothes at a time when to do so was a criminal offence. A frog-catcher by trade, Jenny was a regular fixture in the newspapers, thanks to her frequent brushes with the law.

In 1876, when she was 27, Jenny was shot and killed – a murder that remains unsolved to this day. With her at the time of her death was Blanche Beunon, an exotic dancer and prostitute from France. Blanche testified at the murder trial, pointing the finger at the person she believed was responsible for Jenny’s death. That testimony forms the basis of Donoghue’s story.

In Frog Music, we see the events through Blanche’s eyes. The novel opens at the very moment that Jenny is murdered, and then takes us back a month, walking us through the events that led to her death. It’s a classic whodunnit – and I, for one, didn’t manage to guess the circumstances of the murder until the big reveal, 25 pages from the end of the book.

Donoghue obviously did copious research for this novel, but she resists the urge to show off by sprinkling historical trivia on every page. Instead, she evokes the time and place in living colour. You can almost hear the rowdy singing in the music hall; smell the garlicky, buttery frog legs served up at the bar; see the bustling crowds in Chinatown; and feel – whether you want to or not – the agony of smallpox, which was ravaging the city at the time:

… his hands are embroidered with huge rubies each half an inch across, globes so thick on his right lid that he can’t open his eye. Blanche presses her handkerchief over her mouth and nose … to shut out the sweet, rotten stench.

Do Irish writers hate being described as “lyrical”? It’s a cliché, but that’s the word that springs to mind when I think of Donoghue’s writing. She keeps the plot tumbling along – there are no flowery descriptive passages or long tangents – but that doesn’t make her language any less striking. A man’s face is “gaunt with complicated rage”. A fire “begins to lick busily”. Donoghue has that beautiful, rhythmic prose style that seems distinctly Irish:

Blanche could slap this man to the floor for his drunken slur and his saloon full of flies circling every stale drip of liquor. The lousy sheets and slick boards in the front room where something that used to be Jenny lies in the corner like garbage.

The 19th century was, by all accounts, a pretty awful time to be a woman. The fear of violence – sexual and otherwise – is a constant in Blanche’s life. Her lover, Arthur, and his friend, Ernest, mercilessly take advantage of her. When Jenny barges into her life, becoming her one and only friend, Blanche begins to see that there are other, more empowered ways to be female.

But, even without Jenny’s influence, Blanche is a different breed from the women who occupy most historical novels and movies. We’re used to seeing them forced into marriage or prostitution, as if sex is nothing but a weapon wielded by men.

Blanche unapologetically enjoys sex, as, I’m sure, many of those women did. In one scene, she challenges Jenny’s assumptions:

“I suppose you’re expecting me to say that I hate it all? That I’m some downtrodden little angel yearning to rise above the muck of my trade?”  

Donoghue reminds us that women who lived 140 years ago were just as complicated and human as we are today. So, if I must draw a connection between Room and Frog Music, maybe it’s that: Donoghue has the uncanny skill of transporting us into the mindset of someone entirely different, whether it’s a five-year-old boy or a 19th century prostitute, and making us believe that they’re real.