The OF Blog: Emma Donoghue, Frog Music

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Emma Donoghue, Frog Music

Blanche has got the left gaiter off now, and the boot below it, but the laces on the other one have snagged, and in the light of the single candle stub she can't find the knot; her long nails pick at the laces.

Dors, min p'tit quinquin,
Min p'tit pouchin,
Min gros rojin... 

Sleep, my little child, my little chick, my fat grape.  The old tune comes more sweetly now, the notes like pinpricks.  A silly Picard rhyme her grandmother used to sing to Blanche in the tiny attic in Paris.

"'Dors, min p'tit quinquin, min p'tit pouchin...'" Jenny slides the refrain back at her like a lazy leaf in a river.

It still amazes Blanche how fast this young woman can pick up a song on first hearing.

"How does the rest of it go?" Jenny asks, up on one elbow, brown cheeks sparkling with sweat.  Her flesh from nose to brows is puffy, darkening.  She'll have a pair of black eyes by morning. (p. 6, iPad iBooks e-edition)

Irish-Canadian writer Emma Donoghue's previous book, Room, was a finalist for the 2010 National Book Awards, capturing readers' attentions with her use of (confined) space in order to tell a story of a kidnapped and sexually-abused mother and her five-year-old son.  In her latest novel, Frog Music, she takes an 1876 San Francisco murder-mystery and constructs a tale of love and lust, of gender-crossing roles and rebellion, of xenophobia and the brutal reduction of orphanages to industrialized "farms" where lives were cheaper than pennies and she creates a moving, often musical (there are over thirty samples of historical lyrics found within its pages) story that is much more than the sum of its parts.

Blanche Beunon is a young French prostitute who has come to San Francisco with her lover and his friend to set up shop.  She is of a higher status than the majority of San Francisco streetwalkers, as she enjoys patronage and has enough wealth to enjoy the finer things in her life.  However, things change when she comes to know a pants-wearing woman named Jenny Bonnet, whose rough edges (she was rumored to be in a thieves' den) and flamboyant behavior, coupled with her side-business of frog gigging, make her an appealing contrast to her lover Arthur and his friend Ernst.

Over the course of the novel, Donoghue charts their developing friendship and sexual tension against a backdrop of everyday activities that would horrify most 21st century readers:  race riots against the Chinese; a smallpox plague; girls as young as 10 forced into prostitution in order to survive; refuse left openly on the streets; and babies, not all of whom are orphans, being sent to "baby farms," where the mortality rate could approach 90%.  As events move inexorably toward Jenny's murder, Donoghue's detailed descriptions of these activities deepens the murder-mystery further, making the tale not just that of a doomed societal rebel, but of a clash of attitudes toward race and gender that makes Jenny's unsolved murder a compelling read.

Donghue's characterizations here are first-rate.  Her care in developing the setting and establishing key scenes is equaled with her fleshing out of these historical characters.  Passages such as the one I quote above from the opening chapter reveal a bantering Jenny, one who can easily dismiss the batterings she has taken in her desire to learn more, here a French lullaby, there personal matters.  Blanche too receives character development.  Too easily she could have taken the passive "observer" role, narrating Jenny's life and death against the backdrop of 1876 San Francisco life, but Donoghue makes her be more than a recent immigrant, more than just a whore, but a woman who is conflicted by what she experiences with Jenny and how Jenny's refusal to kow-tow to societal expectations may be grounded in something that has made Blanche herself uneasy.

The two men in Blanche's life, Arthur and Ernst, are more shadowy characters and Donoghue uses the fuzzy historical details about their lives to construct two characters that in some respects are the antithesis of Blanche and Jenny.  Their conniving, rapacious leeching reveals men who seek to game the present societal system, as they thrive off of their exploitations of others around them.  Their actions, which become entwined with the mystery lying at the heart of the novel, feel real, as there is a sense of sliminess about them that the reader cannot readily shake off.  Donoghue utilizes this to great effect in the latter half of the novel, when the murder occurs and Blanche's infant son by Arthur disappears.

Frog Music is one of the better historical novels that I've read recently.  Donoghue here has written a tale that differs in significant ways from Room, but not at the expense of excellent characterization, interesting themes, and very good prose.  It is a nearly pitch-perfect historical/murder-mystery novel and it is a story that most readers should enjoy reading, time and time again.  Highly recommended.

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