Emma Donoghue, Frog Music (Ireland)


This smallpox laden murder mystery was more of a downer than the cover would have you believe

“A handshake from a farmer’s wife could probably make this lad hard, let alone the sight of the underclothes of a genuine Parisian burlesque dancer.”

I put this book on hold at the library on a whim. Several people have raved to me about Room, Emma Donoghue’s previous novel, but rather than pick that up I thought I’d check out her new novel, published just months ago.

I didn’t really know anything about it before beginning so by pure coincidence, I found many similarities to the last book I read for this blog project, The Luminaries. Set in a gold rush town, with a timeline that jumps forward and back, centred around a mysterious death and a prostitute – it’s amazing how different they can still be. For one, Frog Music had very little to do with the gold and a lot to do with the prostitution.

The book begins with Blanche and Jenny, bosom buddies of late, staying at a ranch on the outskirts of San Fran. Suddenly shots are fired, Jenny is dead, Blanche blames herself. Blanche has a complicated life – a circus performer in Paris turned burlesque performer in America where she lives with her lover and fellow former circus performer Arthur, though their relationship quickly dissolves as a baby joins the mix. Meanwhile the city is teeming with small pox and suffering through a heat wave.

In general I am a sucker for historical fiction. People sometimes think history is boring, or a series of dates and names but history is really a wealth of incredible stories that actually happened and are way more bizarre or interesting than my imagination. Certainly some aspects of Frog Music that gave me that “society actually operated like this at one point not that long ago really and that is ABSURD” sense; thrown into that was the outlandish tale of Jenny the cross-dressing frog catcher’s murder.

Turns out, that part was true too! Or at least largely true. Unbeknownst to me while reading, almost all of the characters Donoghue details are based on real people, although she took some liberties (hey it’s still historical fiction). Upon reaching the afterword, this discovery shocked me. It also broke my heart because, not to give much away but the story ends with Blanche kind of on an upswing after a TERRIBLE few weeks and then it turns out real Blanche died the next year! I found it incredibly upsetting and thought about her for days.

Back to the book though – as mentioned, they lived in a society that left me fuming. Women, particularly Blanche, were treated outrageously. I started typing, “there’s one scene…” but no; there are several scenes that I had to stop reading and rant about because it was just so infuriating. It also made it all the more frustrating when Blanche did things I didn’t agree with. I mean, the morals of the book are interesting. It’s kind of like the prostitute with a heart of gold motif a la Pretty Woman but a little more complicated, what with the murder and the baby…

Anyway, depending on your personal values Blanche may do a lot of things you don’t agree with. But for me it was specifically her testimony at the trial, which is not entirely accurate. Maybe that’s the journalist in me. Get the facts out girl, they’re bad enough.

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