Book review: Frog Music by Emma Donoghue

Claustrophobic Emma Donoghue's novel is set in smallpox-infested San Francisco in 1876
Claustrophobic Emma Donoghue's novel is set in smallpox-infested San Francisco in 1876
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IT’S a brave author who starts a book by bumping off their best character. In Frog Music, Emma Donoghue has her killed by page six, the victim of an unidentified assassin.

Frog Music

Emma Donoghue

Picador, £16.99

This ill-fated creature is Jenny, an eccentric troublemaker who hunts frogs for a living, dresses in men’s clothing and brawls in bars.

Donoghue, whose last novel Room – about a mother and son held captive – was both Man Booker shortlisted and a bestseller, has stuck with a claustrophobic setting. But in Frog Music, it is a sweltering, smallpox-infested San Francisco in 1876. Her protagonist, Blanche, a burlesque dancer, must find out who has murdered Jenny – the friend for which “she’d been waiting a quarter of a century” – while rescuing her own child.

The novel flitters around the days between Blanche’s first meeting with Jenny and the aftermath of the latter’s death a month later. This allows the reader to see the truth behind Blanche’s early impression of Jenny as a “dazzling original, the exception to all the rules of womanhood”.

Blanche had arrived in San Francisco nearly two years earlier with her lover Arthur and his friend Earnest. All three were former stars of the Parisian circus – Blanche rode horses, and Arthur and Earnest were trapeze artists – until Arthur fell, sustaining a back injury. Now, Blanche supports the two men by performing with her legs at the House of Mirrors and on her back in hotel rooms with her many male fans. As Jenny puts it, Blanche still works with animals.

Unfortunately, she’s living with one too: Arthur – “a scrupulous dandy… The peacock everyone wants to stroke” – who eventually proves himself to be cruel and vindictive.

This is a brutal world, one where young girls’ virginity is sold off, where unwanted babies are kept in a shuttered house of horrors, and where earless beggars stand on the streets, their hearing taken as punishment for theft during the Gold Rush. Yet Donoghue also shows its attractions: the excitement and the possibility of reinvention and betterment that the new world offers.

The novel is fast-paced and Donoghue’s talent for storytelling shows in her ability to jump around without ever losing the reader. She also has a knack for description: both her characters and the world she portrays come alive in your mind.

My one complaint would be the sex scenes. They don’t quite make this story a candidate for the Bad Sex awards, and are mercifully short and infrequent, but they do illustrate why even talented authors should take a vow of celibacy on the page.

I suspect Frog Music won’t enjoy quite the commercial or critical success of Room. But I hope it piggybacks a little on its predecessor’s success, being a novel that is lively, entertaining and well written. n