Frog Music – Emma Donoghue
Frog Music is an unusual and, at times, discordant composition, hopping from one event to another, revealing the underbelly of San Francisco in 1876.
Based on a true unsolved crime, this is the story of Blanche and Jenny, two women striving to scrape a living in a turbulent and violent city. Blanche, former equestrienne with the Parisian Cirque d’Hiver, is now an exotic dancer living with her “maque” (pimp) Arthur and his close friend Ernest. Jenny is a cross-dressing frog-catcher of no fixed abode who supplies the French and Chinese communities. Somehow, Jenny and Blanche’s paths cross and it is Jenny who sews the seeds of doubt in Blanche’s mind re the wisdom of placing her son P’tit in a baby farm. Blanche’s resultant struggle to embrace her maternal side causes havoc in her relationship with Arthur and cracks quickly appear in an already fragile liaison.
Whilst Emma Donoghue’s novels are eclectic in their subject matter and genre, what they do have in common is the author’s knack to capture the essence of true-life stories from any era and to make them vividly accessible to the modern reader. In Frog Music, we see San Francisco in the midst of a sweltering heatwave and a smallpox epidemic – it’s a city on the edge, pushing itself to its very limits. There is rising tension between the whites and the expanding Chinese community – tension which spills over onto already impoverished streets. Even though this is the seedier side of the city, I loved its vibrancy and lust for life despite the constant threat of death from the escalating epidemic.
Unfortunately I found the other characters less engaging than San Francisco and I felt that I was viewing them through the city’s famous fog. I just couldn’t get a sense of who the main characters were and why they acted the way they did. Perhaps that was the idea, that they put up a facade, “the show must go on” etc, but it left me feeling cold and distanced.
It took me around 120 pages to get into the story, for the pace to pick up to a level which made me want to “pick up” the book again and continue reading. Thereafter I was truly engaged but if it hadn’t been a review book I wouldn’t have persisted after 50 pages.
Overall, I’m glad I read this book as the last two thirds of the narrative highlight the author’s skill as a storyteller but I can’t help feeling slightly disappointed as I thoroughly enjoyed Slammerkin and The Sealed Letter and expected more of Frog Music.