Frog Music is the latest novel from best-selling author of Room, Emma Donoghue. I loved Room when I read it a few years ago – in fact it’s probably still in my top ten – and since then I’ve enjoyed a couple of her other books too. When I heard that she was turning her hand to the murder mystery genre for Frog Music, I had to give it a try.
Inspired by true events, Frog Music tells the story of ex-circus performers Blanche, Arthur and Ernest living in Chinatown, San Francisco during the 1870s. Blanche funds the threesome through her work in the local brothel, and she is content with her free-living lifestyle until a chance accident brings Jenny Bonnet into her life.
Jenny is not like anyone Blanche has met before; a bold, brash American woman who dresses in men’s clothes and catches frogs for a living. Where others would stay silent, Jenny asks questions, prompting Blanche to reassess many aspects of her own life, as she quickly becomes enamoured with her new – and what she considers her first and only – friend.
Throughout the book two timelines run simultaneously; as we follow the budding friendship forming between Blanche and Jenny, we also follow Blanche’s actions after Jenny’s untimely death (this isn’t a spoiler, she is shot within the first few pages). All of the story is told in the third person but, through Blanche’s perspective, Donoghue builds complex, three-dimensional characters in Jenny, Arthur and Ernest, as well as Blanche herself.
I wasn’t entirely sure whether we are supposed to like Blanche in this story. She’s certainly made some mistakes in her time, and I’m not a huge fan of how she makes a living. But I think that’s the point. Blanche Beunon was real, and Donoghue has created a real, flawed individual; one who doesn’t always make the right decision – because who does?
As well as creating complex characters, Donoghue also does a wonderful job of bringing history to life. The sweltering heatwave, the smallpox epidemic, the poor conditions of Chinatown, the racism and sexism of the times are all effortlessly weaved into the story. One aspect of the story I found particularly interesting was that of Blanche’s baby, P’tit. Like Blanche, I had no idea that places like baby farms actually existed and Donoghue illustrates the horrifying conditions these children are kept in in a manner which would melt anyone’s heart.
Whilst there is no doubt that Emma Donoghue is a talented writer, with a knack for depicting characters and scenes in history without fault, something in this book just didn’t quite click for me. It is being touted as a crime – a murder mystery – but it doesn’t really feel like one most of the time. The plot is actually quite thin, the focus is much more on the atmosphere and the characterisation than a mystery which twists and turns. Whilst it has its strengths, there were some aspects which just didn’t work for me. Old songs – lots of them – their lyrics sang and discussed at length. I imagine that this was designed to add to the authenticity of the atmosphere, but it’s not something I enjoyed. Another niggle I had was with the graphic and constant references to how much Blanche loves sex. It’s not that I’m anti sex in books but this did detract from the story at points for me. I don’t know how many times the reader has to be told that Blanche loves sex – even when she’s on the run, scared for her life, she still has time to think about it and do it every now and then. But maybe that’s just her character.
All in all, Frog Music is worth a read if you enjoy a complex historical drama, but if you’re looking for a true mystery suspense novel, I would probably look elsewhere.