Book review: Frog Music by Emma Donoghue
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.
TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success
tvU2’s latest record has been accused of promoting sex between men
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Which country would be hardest to invade?
- 2 The man who filmed the Freddie Gray video has been arrested at gunpoint
- 3 How the language you speak changes your view of the world
- 4 Royal baby girl born: Duchess of Cambridge's second child will be a princess thanks to Queen
- 5 Uploading pictures to find out how old you are gives Microsoft the right to post them wherever they want
Daredevil, Netflix, TV review: Marvel wins first fight in bid for television domination with Charlie Cox's superhero vigilante
London art exhibition features portrait of Iraqi migrant shot dead in Iraq after being refused UK asylum
Grace Dent on TV: Peter Kay's Car Share made me genuinely LOL
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
London Marathon: Best running songs from Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar to 'Uptown Funk'
Over 50,000 families shipped out of London boroughs in the past three years due to welfare cuts and soaring rents
EU asylum policy is 'a direct threat to our civilisation', says Nigel Farage
Indonesia executions live: 'Hysterical' families heard prisoners being shot dead by firing squad
The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?
General Election 2015: SNP and its activists 'openly racist' towards the English, Farage says
EU exit would hit UK economy much harder than neighbouring countries, study finds