‘Frog Music’, from Emma Donoghue, takes us back to the brothels and backstreets of San Francisco, and to the sweltering heatwave and smallpox epidemic that characterised the summer of 1876. The novel opens with the murder of Jenny Bonnet. The only other person present at the scene of the crime is her friend Blanche, one of the star performers at the infamous House of Mirrors bordel.
The rest of the novel flits back and forward in time. In one narrative stream, we learn how Blanche and Jenny first met, and how their chance meeting and friendship may have led to the shooting. In the other strand, we follow Blanche’s wild search for the guilty party after Jenny’s death.
Famous for her ability to capture the hearts, minds and bodies of men, Blanche lives with Arthur – her ‘maque’, her man or her pimp depending on how you look at it – in a Chinatown apartment, performing twice a week in a titillating dance show of risqué burlesque. We quickly learn that Blanche’s baby son is being raised out of town, and is seen by his parents only rarely, allowing them to carry on with their own lifestyles without worrying about his upbringing.
But when Blanche happens to run right into the infamous Jenny Bonnet, it’s the catalyst that will change everything. Known about town for her habit of wearing men’s clothes and her trade as a frog catcher, Jenny asks the questions that others don’t, forcing Blanche to re-examine her life, her lover, motherhood and her future. Ultimately, this chance encounter sets in motion events that will lead to Jenny’s untimely death.
Emma Donoghue spins us back and forth, weaving an intricate and perfectly conceived murder mystery. We’re right there with Blanche as she clings to any shred of evidence, caught up in a web of confusion as she struggles to point her finger at the right culprit. The author also touches on some important themes about labels, identity and nationality, but in a subtle way that doesn’t throw them in your face at the sake of the story. I loved the constant presence of music throughout the novel, it felt like it gave the book an added dimension and really helped to bring San Francisco to life – I just wish I understood more French!
That said, Blanche as a character really annoyed me. Even though we spend the entire book inside her head, I just couldn’t connect with her. Yes she comes across as witty and feisty, but she’s also sly, callous and selfish. Throughout the book, she just seemed to make one stupid mistake after another. She was certainly a strong character and well written, but I just found her quite frustrating. I didn’t feel she really grew or developed over the course of the book in the way that she should have.
Jenny, on the other hand, I though was a great character, but I would have loved to go a little deeper into what made her tick. We find out clues and titbits of her life along the way, but we find these out with Blanche after Jenny’s death, leaving little room for any type of resolution.
I felt like I was one of the few people out there who didn’t absolutely love Emma Donoghue’s ‘Room’, so I was really happy to be pleasantly surprised by this book! Many thanks to NetGalley and the publishers for the ARC.