— This review originally appeared in The Australian
THE most interesting character in Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music is shot dead in the opening pages, her bloodied countenance described as “a carnival version of a familiar face”. One can understand how the unsolved 1870s case of a cross-dressing female killed in a room in the presence of her companion, a French burlesque dancer, might tempt a writer’s interest. Certainly one as attracted to historical tales as Donoghue.
The Irish writer’s works have tended to centre on intricate embellishments of real-life stories and crimes, with a particular focus on strong women caught in the strictures of their era. Of her seven previous novels, three have been historical fiction, Donoghue describing Slammerkin (2000), Life Mask (2004) and The Sealed Letter (2008) as a trilogy of investigations of the British class system.
Yet it was her previous novel, the Man Booker Prize short-listed Room (2010) — a contemporary crime story — that became an international bestseller, centring as it did on a high-profile atrocity: the Josef Fritzl case.
Narrated from the perspective of a young child imprisoned since birth in a room with his abused mother, what Room offered was the rather morbid thrill of imaginatively exploring a consciousness damaged by the actions of a perverted individual, in a story based closely on one that had dominated recent headlines.
From this, then, to her newest title Frog Music, which similarly is based on a true crime, yet one so old and obscure that it lacks any of the perverse frisson promised by Room. Donoghue elucidates the bare bones of “what was generally known as the San Miguel Mystery” in an afterword.
Jenny Bonnet, a roustabout, bicycle-riding young woman who dresses in men’s attire — a predilection for which she has been before court several times — is shot while staying in a room at San Miguel Station on the outskirts of San Francisco. Her companion, Blanche Beunon, is with her in the room, but is unharmed.
From this slim historical case Donoghue weaves her tale. That Jenny’s murder occurs in the opening pages is problematic. Donoghue jumps back and forth in time so frequently that much of the novel is a rehashing in present tense of events that have already been outlined, with little change from the earlier summation.
The focus of the work becomes the plight of Blanche, who lives with her dandified lover Arthur and his friend Ernest, all three former acrobats at the Cirque d’Hiver in Paris (this menage, and the occasional client Blanche services after her leg shows at the House of Mirrors, provide occasion for the jarringly explicit sex scenes at odds with the overall tone of the novel). Her chance encounter with Jenny leads to their fast friendship — the title comes from the coincidence of their nationalities and Jenny’s occupation as a frog catcher — and a shattering of the comfortable, acquiescing life Blanche has led.
Though Frog Music is written in the third person, Donoghue’s rendering of Blanche’s internal dialogue becomes interminable. The novel is mired in endless hand-wringing, entire pages made up of stream of consciousness questions we already know the answer to. Any intrigue in the murder mystery is removed, as Blanche is so certain that Arthur is the culprit, one begins to suspect she doth protest too much. Donoghue seems so eager to inject characterisation and period detail into the bare historical facts that she overstuffs this work until it is bursting. The musical lyrics — inserted to add a juxtaposing lightness to bleak events — are unnecessary in an already overlong book. Similarly, the glossary of French phrases appear superfluous given most are explained in the text.
What Donoghue does do skilfully is conjure 1870s San Francisco in all its hellish, disease-ridden, claustrophobic madness. The emerging metropolis was wrecked in 1876 by the twin plagues of a heatwave and a smallpox epidemic, which cloak the city in a stifling blanket of suspicion and rising tempers.
The whole novel, like San Francisco itself, is a kind of dark carnival, “a roulette wheel that spins its human chips at random”. Houses and businesses infected by smallpox were forced to hang yellow flags above their doors, becoming so widespread that the city seemed scattered with morbid decorations, “yellow flags hang like bunting for some cancelled New Year”.
Indeed, much of Frog Music has the feel of a carnival, all merry songs and cheap thrills in overcrowded laneways. But like a day at the carnival that has gone on rather long, eventually the movement becomes jarring, the sweet smells become sickly, and the endless playing of gaudy music — frog or otherwise — begins to grate.
— Frog Music is available now through Picador.