San Francisco, the summer of 1876. A heat wave and a smallpox epidemic, twin plagues, have hit this “foreignest city of America” hard. It’s amid this Wild West landscape that Emma Donoghue sets her eighth novel, “Frog Music.”
The Man Booker prize nominee is a master of historical fiction, but “Frog Music” is her first historical murder mystery. “Frog Music” gives voice to those on the fringes of mainstream historical narrative: the prostitutes, the immigrants, the square pegs who don’t fit into round holes. It is an ode to desires unleashed and loves forbidden. It isn’t your grandparents’ history.
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“Frog Music” reworks the murder of Jenny Bonnet, a woman notorious for flouting social convention. Arrested for cross-dressing, Bonnet was a hard-drinking, bicycle-riding, revolver-carrying hellion who made her living by catching frogs to sell to restaurants. Bonnet was shot through a partially open window while lying in bed one night. Her murderer was never caught.
Jenny Bonnet’s story is told through Blanche Beunon, a French immigrant and burlesque dancer. After Jenny accidentally crashes her bicycle into Blanche on the street, the two become fast friends. Blanche finds Jenny’s eccentricities refreshing: “Jenny’s like a good strong drink when you didn’t even realize you needed one.”
Blanche is part of the Bohemian “free love” scene, but soon realizes it’s not really free. She financially supports not only her man Arthur, but his friend Ernest, who may also be Arthur’s lover. “Arthur preached free love — meaning that he could do what he liked, and it was never him who paid.”
The three live together, forming a love triangle that is both sexually electric and coercive. Blanche “farms out” her baby once he’s born because she needs to work and Arthur doesn’t want to be bothered.
“One never sees a baby in Paris; they don’t thrive in cities. And rents are so high, mothers have to work. … We were all farmed out to country folk,” Blanche explains.
Only after Jenny questions Blanche about her son does she realize she doesn’t know where he is. Blanche discovers her baby languishing in a “baby farm” — an urban institution of neglect. He’s so malnourished that his body is deformed by rickets; he’s so neglected that he cannot stand to be touched.
Horror and maternal guilt launch Blanche into the role of motherhood with ferocity, pulling her away from work and her man. As in Ms. Donoghue’s New York Times best-selling “Room,” there’s a claustrophobic, stifling sense of parenting here.
Ms. Donoghue’s narrative is nonlinear. It skips forward and back in time, withholding crucial pieces of the puzzle necessary to see the picture whole. Jenny’s story unfolds in rapid flashes, which reveal surprising secrets of Jenny’s past. Blanche wonders: “When Jenny left off skirts and put on pants, did some old scars not bother her anymore — did they no longer feel like hers?”
Atop the mystery, Ms. Donoghue masterfully overlays another story about motherhood and obligation, and friendship — even desire — between women. Ms. Donoghue manifests her genius by weaving the two together.
“Frog Music” asks a lot of questions about desire and forbidden love, but answers them in curious ways. In the conclusion, homosexual desire is replaced by proper heterosexual coupling; homosexual acts are severely punished.
Despite this, by the novel’s end, Blanche realizes her one-month friendship with Jenny Bonnet was the best time of her life. “Happiness [is] as un-pin-downable as a louse: you feel the tickle of its passage but your fingers close on nothing.”
“Frog Music” is a page-turner of a mystery with rich historical texture. There are elaborate descriptions of child rearing practices, nightlife, women’s clothing and Chinatown in its 416 pages. The novel is full of song lyrics that are now classics in the folk canon. Ms. Donoghue gives the reader lengthy descriptions of each song in the postscript, and a link to an online playlist.
Now that’s happiness.
Julie Hakim Azzam (email@example.com) is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and teaches literature at the University of Pittsburgh.