Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Frog Music

Frog Music is the latest novel from Emma Donoghue, the acclaimed Irish author of 2010’s best-seller Room. Based on a true unsolved murder in 1870s San Francisco, the author drew from countless newspaper articles, legal documents and more to write the novel, offering a fictional resolution to this long-forgotten crime. Frog Music revolves around the enigmatic Jenny Bonnet, an independent young woman unafraid of bucking the strictures placed on women by society at the time.

It’s the summer of 1876 and San Francisco is dealing with a heat wave and smallpox epidemic when 27-year old Jenny Bonnet, a gun-toting frog catcher and bike riding free spirit who dared to fight the norms of the day by wearing men’s suits (even if it meant being thrown in jail), is shot to death. Blanche Beunon, a French burlesque dancer, prostitute and ex-circus performer was Jenny’s friend and survives the attack unscathed. Determined to do right by her friend and bring her murderer to justice, Blanche sets off to find the truth, firmly convinced she was the shootings true intended victim and that the finger of blame will point directly at Arthur Deneve, her French lover and the father of her child, and his “friend” Ernest Girard.

As Blanche begins to ask questions in search not only for the truth but for her young son’s whereabouts, we learn not only about Jenny’s past but also about Blanche herself and the circumstances which lead up to the fateful night at the Eight Mile House in San Miguel Station when Jenny’s life was cut short. Through flashbacks in Blanche's narration we bear witness to her role at the House of Mirrors in San Francisco’s Chinatown where she performed, the illicit rendezvous she regularly had after performances with rich clients willing to meet her price, the complicated ménage à trois arrangement she had with Arthur and Ernest, and the poor forgotten child whom, thanks to Jenny, she finally saw fit to save.

I was really looking forward to reading this book, given the amazing job Donoghue had done on Room, but while I found the book offered a true sense of the time (the location, the people, the social issues faced by the citizenry, including discrimination and baby farms), the characters left a lot to be desired. Sadly, whether not fully fleshed out, like Jenny who wasn’t in the story enough and became just a compilation of contradictory facts and memories, or else downright unlikable like our main protagonist Blanche, they offered no reason to care or feel invested in their plight. It’s an interesting albeit gritty story, but one with very little heart, perfectly defined by the author herself as “a murder mystery among lowlifes.”

Frog Music is a sordid tale featuring lurid sex scenes and as I said characters lacking many redeeming qualities. Arthur and Ernest were leeches feeding off Blanche, using her body for their personal sexual pleasure, as well as using the money she earned on her back as a piggybank for their gambling habit. As for Blanche, it wasn’t the fact that she loved sex or was OK with being used by those two cretins that tainted my opinion of her, hey to each their own; instead her greatest sin was that she'd turned her back on her child and not because of need or for his greater good, but out of pure convenience. As the Madame from the House of Mirrors throws in Blanche's face, she could not play the innocent victim kept in the dark as to the condition of P’tit’s care while being farmed out; the truth was that “she was happy to be relieved of the burden of his care,” and until she met Jenny she hadn’t asked questions because she hadn’t really wanted to know, preferring instead the luxury of a carefree life.

Despite the mystery aspect of the book, I found no tension-filled suspense as we drew closer to the story's resolution, which could be because I also felt no overwhelming concern for Blanche's well-being. In truth, the most gripping and compelling parts of the tale were Donoghue’s depictions of the time’s social issues; both the discrimination of Chinese immigrants, including them being singled out and blamed by the Health Department as the source of the smallpox epidemic or being targeted in riots and their properties destroyed out of pure ignorance, but more horrifying still was the truth about the city’s baby farms, which I had never even heard about, described as infanticide in the guise of day care, where children withered and suffered as a direct result of neglect.

Frog Music was a passably tolerable read; nothing to write home about, but at times a nonetheless informative and captivating look at a long-gone time in our American history.