There is something that draws you in about the world that Emma Donoghue has created for her latest novel ‘Frog Music’. The book is set in San Francisco during 1876. It is the middle of a small pox epidemic and a heat wave that is over powering the city. The main character of the novel is a French ‘Show girl’ by the name of Blanche Beunon. She is a woman who has dragged herself to the top, and still in her mid twenties is a property owner with the proceeds of her dancing and prostitution. She literally runs into Jenny Bonnet, who is cycling a strange contraption (penny farthing bicycle) down the road and manages to knock Blanche off her feet. Jenny Bonnet is an unusual character, a woman who has been to jail on several times for ‘dressing as a person of the opposite sex’, a crime that is hard to believe ever existed. The two become unlikely friends as Blanche welcomes this cross dresser into her world.
This is Emma Donoghue’s follow up to the 2010 novel Room, a book that she is unlikely to better in terms of sales at least. Room was a novel that dealt with a young woman and her child that were held captive for many years, similar to the Fritzl case in Austria. It is told from the perspective of Jack, the woman’s five year old son, who has never known the outside world. This book was swept along on a wave, spreading by word of mouth and passing from book club to book club and received a huge amount of critical praise and awards. In truth, it is an impossible novel to follow up, as Donoghue found a topic that was engrossing to many and set about creating a realistic character within it.
Donoghue hasn’t tried to find another similar topic, but has instead returned to a style she knows and has worked in before, that of the historical novel. On her web site, there is a 22 page document listing the sources for this novel, and she has pieced together the tale from newspapers reports, passenger lists and several entries from the hall of records. She has tried to keep to the real story as much as possible, but obviously that is only the starting point for this work.
In my opinion, this is a stronger novel than her previous work Room, and tells a fascinating tale that is made all the more bizarre by the fact that it is true. Whether it will captivate the public in the manner of the earlier work we will have to wait to find out, but it is unlikely due to the subject matter not filling as many headlines.
She has managed to breathe great life into San Francisco during this age, and the street names and parts of the city that still exist today are often mentioned. The novel is part thriller, as early on in the piece, one of the main protagonists meets a grisly fate. Blanche sets about to try and track down the killer. The characters are bright and lively, and it is a novel that transports you to another intriguing time and place. Can you ask anything more?
Frog Music by Emma Donoghue is available on Audible
The novel is read by Khristine Hvam, a woman who is known for voicing Professor Juniper in the Pokemon series (we won’t hold that against her!). She has a warm voice, and creates different accents for each of the characters. She also has a lovely french accent and singing voice that helps on the sporadic songs and short pieces of French text.
Categories: Book Reviews, Books
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