Frog Music by Emma Donoghue

Frog Music was written by Emma Donoghue who had written one of my favourite books Room, so when Frog Music was published, I immediately added it to my list of books to read. Room is reveiwed on this site at Donoghue is a very successful author, emma dhaving earned her living as a writer since the age of 23.

The author is an Irish writer born in Dublin, Ireland, in October 1969. She is the youngest of eight children of the literary critic, Denis Donoghue, and his wife Frances. She was educated in Dublin and New York, USA and subsequently earned a first-class honours BA in English and French from University College Dublin. Donghue then moved to England, and received my PhD from the University of Cambridge, England. She now lives in London, Ontario,  Canada,where she lives with Chris Roulston and their two children.

Frog Music, is Emma Donoghue’s eighth novel was the follow-up to Room. It takes place on the seedy post-gold rush streets of 1870s San Francisco, California.

Frog Music is drawn from a true story and laced with the ribald lyrics of contemporary songs that are meant to provide added piquancy, but I found them really irritating. The novel’s heroine is former circus girl Blanche Beunon, frog musicnow a “soiled dove”: that is a stripper and occasional prostitute in the city’s Chinatown. The book opens with the shotgun murder of Blanche’s bosom pal, the cross-dressing Jenny Bonnet. We swiftly perceive the contradictions that bind Blanche’s character. She is a good-time girl who misses her baby, P’tit. Frog Music, despite being distant in time and place from the events of Room, turns around many of the same concerns. It is, an exploration of parenthood, using historical fiction to consider some very modern issues. Blanche struggles to raise her child while doing a demanding job. She dithers over childcare for P’tit, trying to find a way of maintaining her lubricious lifestyle while dealing with the responsibilities that come with her success: money, a home, offers of ever more lucrative work.

The story in Frog Music cuts back and forward in time. This is a device I do not like and in this novel, I found the sequence and plot very difficult to follow. It was a shame I also found That I disliked all the main characters and could not empathise with any of them. The story unfurls into a whodunnit, a genre I enjoy. The finger of blame falls first on Blanche’s lover, Arthur. Then his sinister chum, Ernest, comes into the frame. The reader is drawn tighter into the plot and suspicions rove across a wide cast of unpleasant characters. All this happens against the backdrop of a San Francisco sweltering under a record heatwave, ravaged by a smallpox epidemic and heaving with racial tension. Frog Music treads the grimy San Francisco streets and has an eye for period detail.

As the narrative hurtles towards its denouement, Blanche learns lessons about life, love and parenthood. She is fierce in P’tit’s defence, ambitious for his happiness and her own. Although, the end of the novel also turns around a moment of unsuspected observation, of hurried assumptions and ingrained bigotry that would normally carry my interest, but it was too little too late. I was bitterly disappointed by this novel. I had looked forward to it so very much but I did not enjoy it and cannot recommend it.

Valerie Penny



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