“Woman’s Mania for Wearing Male Attire Ends in Death.”
A couple of years ago when I read Room by this author I was traumatised. It wasn’t a feel good book – claustrophobic but gripping. Misery lit fiction. So I was apprehensive when a colleague suggested Frog Music as my next read.
I needn’t have worried. The author’s own pre-release description of Frog Music was historical fiction based on the true story of a murdered 19th century cross-dressing frog catcher. Sufficiently far away from misery lit and weird enough to tickle my fancy, but Frog Music is much more than that teaser suggests.
1876 San Francisco is the setting – a society so different to the modern world that it completely transports the reader. The overwhelming impression is raw cosmopolitan, people flooding into a thriving city from the rest of the globe. The California gold rush is history but has left a legacy of wealth, instant gratification, disappointment and beggars. San Francisco swarms with new Americans, most notably French, Prussians and Chinese. Law and order’s grip on daily life is as tenuous as the stability of the wooden city buildings that shudder with each movement of the Earth’s crust and burn to the ground through accident or riot. Rampant smallpox adds a large dose of carpe diem to the behaviour of the residents. Donoghue paints all this perfectly.
Blanche Beunon is our narrator, a young French circus performer who has found a talent for entertainment of a more adult nature. She lives in comfort thanks to her earnings but shares a bohemian lifestyle with two male former acrobats that sinks frequently into depravity. Looking over Blanche’s shoulder, the reader is in a safer place than Room, but the plot has a train wreck trajectory from the first chapter.
This tragic story is delivered in third person, present tense but the timeline alternates either side of the blood-soaked first few pages in order to explain how things came to that fateful event and to lead to the eventual resolution of whodunnit. Once or twice I had to recap in order to be sure whereabouts the story had got to, but the delivery worked well overall.
There are very few wise people in Frog Music. With the exception of old Maria with her destroyed face, all the characters display different facets of naivety. Blanche is very worldly in her work environment and doesn’t lack confidence but she is naive in the belief that her acrobatic ménage of a lifestyle can continue once the complications of adult responsibilities ensue. The other characters are similarly in denial of their mortality and cavort with abandon in the face of disease, dishonesty and debauchery.
The catalyst to this crucible of San Francisco is Jenny Bonnet the cross-dressing frog catcher. A fascinating character, Jenny has a massive impact upon everyone in the book but (and no real spoiler here) she is killed off in the first four pages. She understands the rules of life and death better than anyone, but is no more able to avoid her own demise. Had she stayed alive throughout the book and then died towards the end it may have been unbearable. As it stands, the author breathes life into Jenny’s character and Frog Music is as much a eulogy to Jenny Bonnet as it is a journey of self-discovery for Blanche Beunon.
Witty, fast-paced and intricate, Frog Music leads the reader a merry dance. Sometimes I wanted to laugh, to cry and other times to take a long hot shower to cleanse the depraved filth of the Californian heat wave from my pores. Donoghue’s cast act in ways that delight, titillate and infuriate but their behaviour and attitudes are logical in the final scheme of things. The many skeletons in the cupboard eventually manifest themselves, the highest impact being caused by the smallest of them, P’tit. As different as this is to Room in so many ways, the hub of Donoghue’s FrogMusic is once again a small child.