The latest work from Emma Donoghue is one that will stick with you for a while. Frog Music is a gem. Set in the scalding summer of 1876 in the midst of a smallpox epidemic, Donoghue’s story surrounding the little-known unsolved murder of Jenny Bonnet unfolds. From the very beginning, she pulls the reader into the heat and the period with imagery that isn’t verbose but also doesn’t leave you wanting. The artful insertion of French and American song excerpts throughout only adds to the ambience that the author has created, and she addresses the song choices in her notes at the end for those who are extra curious about such things. The author’s note was a pleasure to read, and I usually skip over those. She also includes a bevy of French words and phrases to make the characters more authentic, all of which are interpreted in the glossary, for which I thank her.
Donoghue brought real people back to life in this vivid historical fiction piece, inventing only five named characters and doing so smartly. Jenny Bonnet is a young woman who breaks the law every day as she walks around San Francisco in trousers instead of the time’s proper female attire. This cross-dressing frog catcher is an inquisitive person, to say the least, and even as the author fills in gaps about this woman’s background, there is still room for the reader to speculate as to the motives for her actions, which maintains Jenny’s mystery and intrigue.
Then there is Blanche, a young French burlesque dancer and prostitute who is literally bowled over by Jenny’s entrance into her life, and it is this woman whose point of view we follow as she is transformed by her short but turbulent relationship with Jenny. The action moves back and forth in time between the day Jenny and Blanche meet and three days after the murder, which creates a natural suspense amid the already titillating plot points. The characters are interesting and memorable and all important to the story in their own way. This novel is poignant, funny, and lyrical. It was crafted to envelop us in the world of Jenny and Blanche and give us a very intimate glimpse into their lives. Emma Donoghue does not disappoint.
You can download a sample or purchase Frog Music by clicking here.