Frog Music is set in late nineteenth-century San Francisco, a city teeming with immigrants, sweltering in the heat, and in the midst of a smallpox epidemic. The story centres on a real-life tale of murder that stirred up the press at the time due to the victim’s eccentric ways. Donoghue works the facts into a dual narrative that explores a friendship and solves the murder. Within this structure other themes are able to blossom, such as identity, independence, freedom, and love. But that isn’t everything either. Motherhood is a vital component of the novel; so too is sickness, racial tensions, and the city itself.
The book begins with the event: the murder. Blanche and her new friend Jenny are lodging at Eight Mile House, just outside the city. They sing snatches of old French songs and get ready for bed; Blanche is missing her infant son and Jenny, battered and bruised, is speaking without thinking. As Blanche bends down to unpick a stubborn knot shots fly through the room leaving Jenny dead. The shooting is the fulcrum, pivoting the narrative between what led to it and what it precipitates. But the catalyst of the whole story is Jenny.
Jenny is a freewheeling, cross-dressing, convention-defying, bicycle-riding frog-catcher. She’s an outsider, a thief, and a vagrant. Her lifestyle has caused her some trouble with the authorities but many love her. She literally crashes into Blanche’s life, upsetting all her previous certainties. Blanche is an outwardly confident woman, a sensation at the House of Mirrors where she dances and entertains an audience of men. She earns good money there, enough to make her a landlord, and an independent woman if it was not for her two maques Arthur and Ernest. They’d be considered her pimps if they roused themselves from their gambling and preening long enough to supply Blanche with any business. Parasites might be a more appropriate word. Jenny’s arrival disrupts the threesome and her questions provoke Blanche into reconsidering her life.
The friendship that develops between Blanche and Jenny has radical consequences for them all. Obviously Jenny’s fate is the direst, but it’s not clear that any of them will escape the encounter unscathed. Arthur and Ernest are on easy street sponging off Blanche, their ever-willing sexual plaything and money bank. Arthur at least seems to have some genuine affection for Blanche, but Ernest always feels like a dark menacing cloud over her. It is Jenny’s direct questions about the whereabouts of Blanche’s little son that shakes the household right up. Little P’tit is being looked after at a farm as far as Blanche knows. Unfortunately it is not the rural idyll kind of farm. Once Blanche belatedly understands the truth of his situation she feels bound to do better by him.
Motherhood does not come naturally to her and her attempts at it are pretty terrible. But she refuses to give up on P’tit once her wilful ignorance of his plight is destroyed. I loved the reluctant motherhood theme; ambivalence about being a mother and towards one’s child is not a subject often approached. I think Donoghue deals with the messier aspects of life very well. Her descriptions of smallpox ravaging Arthur’s body are horribly graphic, and all the better for it. Bodies bleed and ooze, sweat and swell. It’s a corporeal masterclass.
In some ways the murder mystery part of the book is the least of it. The true crime is the inspiration for the story but it never felt the most important aspect of it. It’s what the act reveals about people and place that matters. Blanche’s quest for the truth mostly consists of guesswork and unsubstantiated theory. Her decision-making isn’t great even before Jenny’s death. Afterwards her desperation leaves her virtually incapable of making any good choices. I did feel a bit frustrated by what was fast becoming a comedy of errors of her own making, but somehow Blanche manages to rescue herself time and again. She’s a model of resilience and perseverance, if not common sense and forward planning.
Frog Music is a rich melting pot of a novel, full of larger than life characters and atmosphere. I loved the feel of it, the language and French songs. It has a rhythm that suits the stifling pestilence-ridden background, and fact is mixed effortlessly with fiction to create something special.
Frog Music is available now published by Picador. I was fortunate to receive an advance copy from the publisher.