Sex and squalor in San Francisco

A review of Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music. The moral and physical depravity of this ‘roiling, simmering brew of a novel’ neither entertains nor enlightens

5 April 2014

9:00 AM

5 April 2014

9:00 AM

Frog Music Emma Donoghue

Picador, pp.531, £16.99, ISBN: 9781447249340

Frog Music begins with a crime against a young mother, committed in a tiny space. Unlike Emma Donoghue’s bestselling novel Room, however, the setting is not present-day America but that of 1876. Blanche is travelling on a train with her new friend Jenny. She hears several loud cracks and feels something hot and wet fall on her face. When she collects her senses, Jenny lies dead.

Like Kate Atkinson, Donoghue straddles the literary and the crime genre. Room, inspired by the discovery of a number of women abducted and impregnated by their captors, should have won the 2010 Orange Prize and didn’t — perhaps because its subject matter was simply too controversial. Frog Music, like Donoghue’s The Sealed Letter, is a return to a historical setting.

Blanche is a ‘soiled dove’, a bohemian Frenchwoman who does exotic dances in a nightclub. Her earnings from prostitution, which her fellow former stars of the Paris circus, Arthur and Ernest, feel free to take, have bought her temporary stability and the ownership of a lodging house in Chinatown. When she is crashed into by the spirited, intelligent, cross-dressing Jenny Bonnet riding a stolen bicycle through San Francisco’s twin plagues of smallpox and a heatwave, it’s the start of a new relationship which will prove fatal.

Whether Blanche herself or Jenny was the intended victim, and whether her loafing, swindling ex-lover Arthur is the murderer is only part of the tangle, given that Blanche’s infant son by Arthur, P’tit, was sent away to a baby farm. Jenny, who has already been imprisoned for the crime of wearing men’s clothes, asks uncomfortable questions about this; if no male character emerges with any credit, then their sudden friendship, and Blanche’s own progress from teasing allumette to raging, protective mother is well handled. Playing on the frog as food for the hungry, slang for the French, and metaphor, we are shown how love is kindled, allowing P’tit’s metamorphosis from rickety, starved tadpole to ‘brand new creature’ to be enjoyed.

Frog Music is a roiling, simmering brew of a novel: dramatic, unexpected, punctuated by French and American popular songs and based on true events and people. It offers what the author calls in her afterword an ‘educated hunch’ as to the solution of Jenny’s murder, but it also weaves in themes concerning racism, sexism and homophobia. Less subtle and controlled than one could wish, its portrait of the early days of San Francisco is rather better than its confusing and largely unappealing cast of characters. Blanche’s ménage-à-trois, in a world where a girl must legally be ten years old to be a consenting whore, sees her behaving with startling naivety. In a Balzacian underclass where everyone is out to rob and cheat, it’s hard to believe she would ever have survived.

As in Room, Donoghue’s strengths lie in writing about motherhood and its almost unremitting drudgery, which also contains wthin it the seeds of redemption through love. The use of the historic present, combined with injuries, illness and strong liquor, does not help a certain confusion about what is happening and when, but Blanche grows into a less irritating heroine as the story progresses, even if it is entirely predictable that she and Jenny become lovers.

The sex, both homo- and heterosexual, is graphically described, and the gimcrack ambience surely inspired by Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus as much as by historical research. Yet the impression here is of a moral and physical squalor which neither entertains nor enlightens as it should. Donoghue is too eclectic a storyteller to write an uninteresting book, but she can and will do better than this.

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