Fact or fiction?

Fact or fiction?

Frog Music Emma Donoghue Pan Macmillan2014, pp 405599

Emma Donoghue’s new novel is based on a peculiar historical incident: a murder that took place in San Francisco in 1876 and was never conclusively solved. It does not speak well for Donoghue’s elaborately fictionalised narrative to say that her no-nonsense factual afterword is a more interesting telling of the story.

It’s easy to see why the bare bones of the murder of Jenny (or Jennie, Jeanne or Jeannie) Bonnet (or Bonnett) attracted Donoghue’s attention. A prolific writer still best known for her huge hit, Room, she is drawn to stories of brave, strong women who survive outrageous abuse at the hands of men, and Frog Music includes another such situation. Its hot-blooded central character is professionally known as Blanche la Danseuse, though her professional skills include a lot more than dancing.

For 10 years, Blanche has lived under the sway of her “fancy man,” Arthur Deneve, a dandy and pimp she met at the Cirque d’Hiver in Paris. She would do anything for Arthur, and he often asks her to. One of the most memorably raw scenes in this sexually graphic book describes Blanche having sex with both Arthur and Ernest, a young man whose crush on Arthur is unmistakable. Perhaps if Blanche had paid more attention to Arthur’s favourite painting, Manet’s “Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe,” in which a naked woman and two dressed men share a picnic, and it’s not entirely clear who is interested in whom, she might have picked up on this sooner.

Blanche allows herself to become the body through which these two men connect, but she enjoys almost any kind of eroticism, whatever the situation. This comes through despite Donoghue’s way of throwing verbal buckets of cold water on the book’s descriptions of sex: “the stuffed-to-bursting sensation that erases thought, the steam train of its movement, the frantic mazurka for two.” Or three. Or whatever.

But all this changes when Jenny Bonnet arrives on the scene. She shows up late in the blighted summer of 1876, when San Francisco is in the throes of a smallpox epidemic and an unbearable heat wave. But Jenny is such a cool customer that she brings down the temperature of any room she’s in. She dresses like a man (and has gone to jail for it). She carries a gun and talks like a cowboy. She has a challenging, feisty way of asking unwelcome but important questions, and she wins Blanche over immediately. Jenny prompts Blanche to remember that, in addition to being a famously raunchy dancer, she is also a mama.

Somewhere on a baby farm in the San Francisco area is the one-year-old son she bore Arthur and immediately gave away.

Even this part of Frog Music is based on Donoghue’s dogged research: The real Blanche went and found her son. Donoghue describes him as being not an angelic creature roaming an idyllic country landscape but a “lumpen-headed goblin” tied to a crib in a filthy urban slum. From this point in the book onward, Blanche becomes a totally devoted mother, angering anyone who profited from her earlier career. But this is not a crime novel, so when a crime occurs, Donoghue does not approach it in any conventional way.

Instead, Frog Music tricks up its time sequence, jumping backward and forward during the brief period when Jenny figured in Blanche’s life. Jenny dies in the opening chapter. After that, she is sometimes alive and kicking; sometimes she has already been killed, and a terrified Blanche is trying to take the baby and flee for both their lives. Another measure of this book’s limited appeal is that it offers little incentive to try to piece together such puzzling chronology. The reader knows that the story elements must converge sooner or later, but racing Donoghue to the finish line is not a tempting prospect.

During the course of Frog Music, we learn about a lot of ancillary topics with built-in book club appeal. Those clubs might meet to discuss Donoghue’s themes over sautéed frogs’ legs, since Jenny is a professional frog catcher for restaurants, if the afterword did not warn that the frog leg trade had diminished frog populations and wrought havoc on ecosystems. But they can still discuss smallpox, which is described in much more sumptuous detail than even the sex scenes, from the pox to the disfigurement to the “opalescent slime.”

Then there is the rampant anti-Chinese bigotry heightened by the fear of smallpox, especially because so many laundry workers were Chinese, and laundry was thought to be a possible way the disease could spread. The book is keen on separating its characters by nationalities, so that “frog” is as apt to mean someone French as an amphibian.

Finally, there are the songs cited in the title. Donoghue has done a lot of obviously enjoyable digging into folk music history to come up with the many songs either sung or quoted in the narrative. And her afterword explains the origins of, and variations on, each of them. These range from war songs to whores’ songs, from “Little Brown Jug” to “The (Daring Young) Man on the Flying Trapeze,” which came from the same circus Blanche and Arthur did. The book includes a French glossary too, but it’s mostly a space filler. You don’t need to be told what “voilà,” “bon voyage” or “enchanté” mean.