Emma Donoghue’s eighth novel is her first since Room (2010), which was inspired by the Joseph Fritzl case and propelled her to global bestseller status from the ranks of the excellent-but-underappreciated historical novelists. Like Room, this novel is also based on a real life crime, but a very different one. Set in 1876 San Francisco, a city sweltering under a heatwave, a smallpox epidemic and festering racism and fear, it begins somewhat daringly with the murder of its best character.
Jenny Bonnet is the professional frog catcher who gives the novel its title – a trouser-wearing, bar-brawling, street-sleeping charmer who befriends the lead character Blanche by running her over with a high-wheeler bicycle. The real-life shooting of Jenny Bonnet is a matter of historical record. It’s the story of how she comes by it on which Donaghue works her magic.
Fortunately we do not truly lose Jenny from the novel when she is bumped off on page seven. Thanks to the time-slip narration, the author takes us back and forward, a day at a time, over the events of the month leading up to the murder, introducing a flamboyant cast of characters as she goes. Blanche is a Parisian former circus pony rider-turned burlesque dancer and occasional woman-for-hire, living in San Francisco’s Chinatown with her “maque” (a man who lives off his girlfriend’s immoral earnings), Arthur, an injured former trapeze artist. And then there’s Ernest, Arthur’s… well, what is he, exactly? When the two men share Blanche in a sexual act more commonly associated with 21st-century second division footballers, you have to wonder.
Blanche is happy with the arrangement – or thinks she is, until Jenny crashes into her life and starts asking questions. Questions such as “Who’s the baby?” “What kind of farm” is he living on? And “Why should the fellows have all the firepower? God made men and women, as they say, but Sam Colt made them equal.” To call Jenny a catalyst that makes Blanche’s life fizzle out of control is to underestimate her vibrancy and power as a character. But, as Blanche sweats through the oppressive city, trying to solve a murder, rescue her baby and save her own life, Jenny’s murder does create the circumstances for a most impressive whodunit.
What Frog Music most has in common with Room, meanwhile, is its unrelenting gaze on parenthood, and on childhood in its most vulnerable and precarious states. Blanche, a reluctant but passionate mother, is “… maddened by this baby as if by a sliver under the skin.”
The novel is brilliant as historical fiction and crime thriller, but it succeeds best by showing the everyday things that <itals>don’t<itals> change with time. Our last impression of Blanche, the mother, is one of them. Holding her child, “She feels that surge of warmth and this time she remembers what it means: not love but piss. Or the love that’s mixed with piss and can’t be separated from it.” As a chronicler of motherhood, Donoghue remains hard to beat.