In the opening pages of Emma Donoghue’s eighth novel a murder takes place. Jenny Bonnet, wearer of men’s suits, rider of a high-wheel bicycle is shot through the window of the boarding house where Jenny and her friend Blanche Beunon have spent the past two days. Blanche is convinced she knows who the murderer is and that the bullet was actually meant for her.
Frog Music is based on a true unsolved murder case (although we are presented with a possible solution) which Donoghue’s vivid writing brings to life.
It is 1876 and Blanche Beunon aka Blanche la Danseuse is one of the best dancers (and prostitutes) in San Francisco:
‘The sweet melody gives way to a bolder theme, and Blanche starts to hop, glide, spin. With perfect balance she pushes every pose to its extreme. Face dipped to one knee, she raises the other leg behind her, pointing her toes at the gilt coffered ceiling. The skirt slithers down her thigh, catching a little on the gauzy tights, threatening to turn inside out, and a few gasps erupt from the audience, even though they can see nothing yet – what thrills them most, Blanche knows, is what they can only imagine – but she rights herself and starts waltzing again, as the music returns to the calm opening theme. Her face cool and virginal.’
She arrived in the city ‘the winter before last’ with her beaux Arthur and his friend, Ernest. They live in Chinatown which is cheap and where patrolmen don’t go. It’s filthy – the city won’t pay to sort out the sewers and collect rubbish – which means the smallpox epidemic is rife. However, Blanche owns the building they live in thanks to her skill as a dancer and a barterer.
In a number of ways, Jenny seems to be the opposite of Blanche; she catches frogs which she then sells to local restaurants; she’s quirky; she’s poor; she’s probably trouble, in the sense that she refuses to conform, is quick-witted and happy to challenge:
‘Fact is,’ says Jenny, clambering to her feet, ‘I only got out a week ago.’
Out? Out of…Ah, doesn’t that just take the cake: a jailbird. ‘What were you in for?’
‘Oh, the usual: appearing in the apparel of the other sex,’ quotes Jenny in a pompous voice.
Blanche frowns. Can that be an actual crime? ‘Well, if this outfit gets you arrested,’ she asks with a hint of impatience, ‘what makes you keep putting it back on?
‘It suits me,’ says Jenny.
Frog Music is structured so the story of Blanche and Jenny’s friendship is told concurrently with that of Jenny’s death and Blanche’s subsequent actions. It’s a device that works well in maintaining our interest in the story. The women’s friendship is an unusual one and it appears to be a catalyst for Blanche to question some of Arthur’s behaviour – why has she allowed their son to be taken from her? Why does he put Ernest before her? Why is he so vile towards her? While Blanche’s behaviour following the death of her friend leads to the discovery that she knew little about Jenny, who has chosen to live behind a series of lies.
Donoghue clearly explores women’s rights and issues throughout the novel; work, motherhood, sexuality, friendship and property are all considered and although Blanche and Jenny are smart, savvy, sophisticated women their lives are still very much controlled by men. This is a book filled with violence and brutality – both physical and mental.
Any Cop?: I enjoyed it. Blanche and Jenny were interesting characters and the murder plot kept me turning the pages. However, I didn’t love it and it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why; the themes, the key characters, the structure all work, it’s just missing the elusive ingredient that makes a good book a wonderful book.