I’ve loved pretty much everything of Emma Donoghue’s I’ve ever read. Most people now know her as the author of Room, and that is an incredible book, but I knew her first as an author of richly evocative historical fiction. While I liked Life Mask and loved The Sealed Letter, I found that Frog Music is the Donoghue book that reminds me most vividly of the first and favourite book of hers that I read, Slammerkin.
While Room was a contemporary story, and Life Mask and The Sealed Letter dealt with the more genteel side of the past, with Frog Music we are back in the same kind of gritty, vivid, explicit underworld we visited in Slammerkin. It’s the world, specifically, of San Francisco in 1876, in the middle of a smallpox epidemic and a heat wave. (The descriptions of smallpox are very vivid and should be required reading for every anti-vaccinator, by the way).
The novel is built around a real murder from 1876 San Francisco: the shooting death of a young woman named Jenny Bonnet: frog catcher, bicyclist and cross-dresser. The story is told from the perspective of Jenny’s friend Blanche, a burlesque dancer and prostitute who was with Jenny at the time of her death, who testified at the inquest, and whose friendship may have led indirectly to Jenny’s death. Both Blanche and Jenny are fascinating and richly developed characters, as are the minor characters and the world they inhabit. Donoghue has taken a genuine historical mystery and given believable feelings and motives to people who scraped out a hard and dirty existence in a time that seems both long ago and yet oddly familiar.
I devoured this book and loved every minute of it, and would highly recommend it to anyone who loves historical fiction, although with the caution that it’s not for those who don’t like graphic or explicit scenes — Blanche is, after all, a prostitute, and Donoghue is not the kind of writer to draw a veil over the realities of her profession, so be prepared for that.
In the Afterword of the novel Donoghue gives us a glimpse into her exhaustive research and also reveals a sad fact about the ultimate fate of a key character. While I liked the fact that this novel was rooted in a real historical event, I decided that if Donoghue had gone so far as to give these people fictional emotions and motives and conversations and thoughts, I could also ignore the historical record enough to imagine a different outcome beyond the pages of the book. That’s how vivid these characters are — you want to change history to ensure that some of them might have at least a little bit of a happy ending.