Donoghue returns to the past in Frog Music, taking us back to San Francisco in the sweltering summer of 1876. A summer that also sees a smallpox epidemic hit the city.
French born Blanche makes her living as a burlesque dancer, supporting herself, her lover and most often her lover's companion as well. And if she sometimes does more than dance? Well...."She never exactly intended to be a soiled dove (that curious euphemism), but neither can she remember putting up any real objection. She stepped into the life like a swimmer entering a lake, a few inches at a time."
Blanche seems to be happy with her life, until the day she literally runs into Jenny Bonnet and discovers that "this is the friend Blanche has been waiting a quarter of a century for without even knowing it". Neither knows that this chance meeting will end in Jenny's death. (No spoilers faithful readers - this happens in the first few pages of the book) Blanche is determined to find out who killed Jenny, even as her own life spirals out of control.
That's the bare bones premise of Frog Music, but there is so much more to the book. Donoghue deftly explores sexuality, love, parenthood, friendship, feminism, abuse and more in a richly detailed setting. And it's a good whodunit as well.
Blanche is a complicated character. She seems oblivious to how she is being used, yet has occasional flashes of clarity. My thoughts on her changed as the book progressed. At first, I didn't engage with her and viewed her quite dispassionately. But as I read further, I was quite sad at her self-deception, then sorry for her as more of her life was revealed, disappointed with some of her choices, then happy as she began to take charge of her own life and by the end was mentally urging her forward, hoping for the ending I wanted.
It is much easier to define how I felt about Jenny. I loved her - her joie de vivre, her happiness, her curiosity, her engagement with those around her and the world. The supporting characters also elicited strong reactions from this reader - particularly Blanche's lover Arthur - whom I despised.
Donoghue slowly plays out the story of Blanche and Jenny in now and then chapters, with a little more revealed each time, sometimes in a single phrase or sentence, connecting the events of those six weeks.
Donoghue's descriptions of time and place had me vividly imaging myself in the heat, the dirt, the dust, the clamour, the colours, the grit and the fear that was 1876 San Francisco.
I had to really stop myself from flipping ahead to see the final pages. I desperately wanted to know who the killer was and where Blanche would end up. I have to say, the murderer was not who I thought it might be. Donoghue plants many red herrings along the way.
The title is clever as 'frogs' and music figure many ways into the novel. Donoghue has compiled a collection of the songs quoted in the book. There are smatterings of French phrases and words throughout Frog Music as well - a glossary is also included.
But what is most fascinating is that Frog Music is based on fact. The time, the players and the events are all real. Jenny Bonnet was murdered - but the case was never solved. "Then, again, the explanation Frog Music offers of this still unsolved murder is only an educated hunch, which is to say, a fiction." Here's a link to Donoghue's list of sources used to write Frog Music."
I enjoy everything that Emma Donoghue writes, but I have to say my favourites are her historical books - a story taken from a bit of history and woven into a tale of what was and what might have been. Definitely recommended. Read an excerpt of Frog Music. You can keep up with Emma Donoghue on Facebook and on Twitter.