Murder of a frog catcher

A review of Frog Music by Emma Donoghue

Emma Donoghue truly broke out, literarily speaking, with her contemporary psychological thriller, Room which came out a few years ago. But the novel that first got her real critical notice was her historical novel, Slammerkin. Slammerkin is set in 18th century England and was praised for the way in which Donoghue captured the period with such gritty realism. Her latest takes her back to those gritty roots.

Frog Music is based on a real murder that took place in 1876 San Francisco. Jenny Bonnet and Blanche Beunon are hiding out in a railroad saloon outside of San Francisco when someone shoots through the window. Blanche is unscathed but Jenny is dead. That's the starting point for the novel. The rest is told in two timelines - partly in the days in the immediate aftermath of the murder as Blanche struggles both to survive and figure out what happened and partly in the month leading up to the shooting, exploring how Blanche and Jenny came to be friends.

And they are an odd couple on the surface. Blanche is a former Paris circus equestrienne turned dancer in a bawdy house who lives with her lover Arthur and isn't above being paid for sex. And Jenny Bonnet is a contrary young woman who insists on wearing trousers (even though doing so has gotten her arrested) and makes a living catching and selling frogs to restaurants. What brings them together is a similar hard-scrabble outlook and toughness. Though Blanche doesn't always like the way Jenny acts, she is influenced by her, not least to try and get her child back. Jenny's murder makes her more determined then ever to find her son, even while she worries that the killer will come after her next.

Donoghue evokes the time and place so well that at times I felt like I was reading narrative nonfiction rather then a novel. Which is both a pro and a con in terms of the story. Her research into the period shines through on every page and I loved settling so completely into this time and this place. This sweltering version of 19th century San Francisco became a character in and of itself in the story. But, while the detailing and description was fine tuned, at times I thought the author lost track of her narrative thread and the story bogged down.

The plot is built around the murder, but it's not really about that. It's about the people and the place and how it all falls apart and comes together. And though I did lose the threads a bit, I think you should read this for the excellence of her research, her ability to place you in 1876 San Francisco, and the fine writing.

Comments

I am reading this book and am close to the ending now. The author has me hooked to the atmosphere, the time, the place and the mystery. I love the way she writes. Next I may be looking out for "Slammerkin".