Frog Music by Emma Donoghue
I was very keen to read her latest novel Frog Music though, as it’s set in San Francisco in the late 1800s. An exciting city in which to make a living, given that it is the port of entry to the US for many nations and is quite cosmopolitan. However, in 1876 it is in the midst of a stifling heat-wave and a smallpox epidemic too.
So it’s a tough time for three Parisians now living in Chinatown. Former stars of the French circus, Blanche works as an exotic dancer at the House of Mirrors and as a high-class whore on the side; Arthur is her lover, and there’s his friend Ernest. Ernest is supposedly engaged to Madeleine, but spends most of his time at Blanche’s house, which she has bought with her earnings, when he’s not out gambling with Arthur. Arthur used to ‘fly through the air with the greatest of ease’, but he missed Ernest the catcher and fell injuring his back.
One day Blanche is out shopping, when she gets knocked over by a bicycle…
Machine explodes one way and rider another, smashing Blanche to the ground.
She tries to spring up but her right leg won’t bear her. Mouth too dry to spit.
The lanky daredevil jumps up, rubbing one elbow, as lively as a clown. ‘Ça va, Mademoiselle?’ French much the same as Blanche’s own; the voice not a man’s, not a boy’s even. A girl, for all the gray jacket, vest, pants, the jet hair hacked above the sunburned jawline. One of these eccentrics on which the City prides itself – which only aggravates Blanche’s irritation, as if the whole collision was nothing but a gag, and never mind who’s left with merde on her hem.
Blanche’s first meeting with the notorious Jenny Bonnet, a cross-dresser (illegal at that time) didn’t go well, but as Jenny walks the hobbling Blanche home, the girls really hit it off and fast become close friends. Jenny is even more Bohemian than Blanche. She has no fixed abode, and alternates between spending time catching frogs to sell to the restaurants for cuisses de grenouilles, drinking, and riding her penny farthing which it appears she has nicked.
It is clear from the start that Arthur doesn’t like her. Jenny has a habit of speaking her mind, and she wonders why Blanche is happy to work so hard, whoring for all those michetons (clients), and what about Blanche’s baby? It’s the baby, P’tit Arthur, as he is known, that sets it all off. Arthur had farmed out the caterwauling baby so Blanche could go back to work, and when Blanche finds he has been kept in a house that reminds one of those scenes in Romanian orphanages where the toddlers were kept in bed all day, ignored, she liberates him. P’tit Arthur is now nearly a year old and has rickets, and is in a bad way. Blanche has to dig deep to find any maternal instincts. The arrival of Jenny and the baby totally upsets the triangle of Blanche, Arthur and Ernest. There are too many secrets that begin to come out, and one of them will end up dead.
Donoghue has based her story upon real events. Most of the characters including Blanche and Jenny existed, and smallpox was rife that hot summer. There was also an unsolved murder in San Francisco, and although it’s clear from the first page of the novel who lives and who dies, as the book starts in the plot’s present before flashing back, I’m not going to tell you who it was.
What I can tell you is that after 416 pages (including appendices) I was mighty fed up of Blanche though. She may be a lusty sex-machine, but the rest of the time she is such a fusspot. Always cross about something, she fair wore me out, and as she features on every page of the novel I did nearly give up reading it, but I kept on because of Jenny who is a wonderful character and we had far too much Blanche and not enough Jenny for my liking.
As I’ve already said, the novel starts near the end of the story with a murder, and thereafter it flashes backwards and forwards constantly as more of what happened gradually gets revealed. It was confusing at times though whether we were in the past, the time around the murder, or the time after the murder for the entire novel is written in the present tense. Combine that with Blanche’s fussing, and you have tangled layers just like her petticoats, and I found it all just too messy.
Scattered throughout the text are snatches from many popular songs of the period, Blanche in particular is always singing to herself and always shares her tunes with us, many of which are in French of course. In the afterword, after an article by the author on her sources for the characters and the murder is a comprehensive listing of all the songs with their individual histories and translations where necessary – I skipped this bit. After that though is a glossary of the French terms used and I did refer to it occasionally. If you want to learn some French swear words here’s where to go! When you’re British, swearing in French seems exotic, even romantic – but bar one scene, there is little true romance in this novel, it’s mostly bump and grind among the petticoats. (6.5/10)
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Source: Review copy from Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Frog Music by Emma Donoghue. Pub March 2014 by Picador, hardback 416 pages.