Imagine living through a heat wave in an 1870s San Francisco slum neighbourhood, full of people sick and dying of smallpox. The setting for Emma Donoghue’s new book, Frog Music, certainly puts our current hot weather in perspective.
As Frog Music opens, a young woman is shot through a saloon window and killed. The victim, Jenny, worked in the evening catching frogs in a local pond, and by day rode about town in men’s pants on a high-wheel bicycle. Wearing men’s trousers was illegal at the time, but is it enough for someone to want to see her dead?
It’s a question that Jenny’s friend Blanche is keen to answer. After all, the bullet that killed Jenny narrowly missed Blanche, a circus performer reduced to dancing in strip clubs. Blanche has an idea about who the killer might be, and is certain that he also wants her dead.
Frog Music is Donoghue’s first mystery novel, but she’s no stranger to historical fiction or to criminal characters. She is the author of the best-selling novel Room, which chronicled the life of a mother and child locked away for years by a deranged captor. For those that would like a taste of Donoghue’s writing prowess but couldn’t handle Room’s subject matter, Frog Music might be the perfect choice.
Jenny’s character is based on a real life San Francisco woman, Jenny Bonnet. Donoghue fictionalizes Jenny’s story, choosing to tell it from her friend Blanche’s point-of-view.
Unfortunately, Jenny is a more intriguing character than Blanche, and I was initially disappointed to have to spend more time with her than with Jenny. However, Donoghue does her best to make Blanche interesting.
It turns out that Blanche recently had a baby who she cast off to be raised at a home in the country. She doesn’t think much about the low price of care, or about what the living conditions might be. When she eventually visits her baby, it turns out that he is housed in a dilapidated house in the city, crammed in with hundreds of other unwashed, malnourished and unloved children.
Horrified, she takes her baby home, only to have him disappear again. Frog Music becomes Blanche’s frantic search not only for Jenny’s killer but for her own child.
Life is hard, desperate and unfair in rough and seedy San Francisco. It seems unlikely that an underdog like Blanche will have any success with her search. But in a town buzzing with the hope of striking it rich, Donoghue keeps the reader guessing right to the end.
Heather Allen is a book reviewer and avid reader living in Penticton.