Review By Emma Young
Emma Donoghue is a favourite of the PG CWWN, frequently discussed at network conferences and events, and her latest historical novel Frog Music (2014) is yet another rip-roaring adventure into history as it traverses the smallpox-ridden landscape of San Francisco in 1876. Although marking a shift in Donoghue’s oeuvre as Frog Music is, in her own words, a crime novel, there is the ever-welcome markers and traits of Donoghue’s usual literary touch with subtle jokes, rye-humour and cutting social critiques filling the pages.
In keeping with Donoghue’s previous historical narratives that are based around true stories, Frog Music focuses on Blanche and Jenny, two women striving to make a living in San Francisco. While Blanche (who was formerly an equestrienne with the Parisian Cirque d’Hiver) is an exotic dancer at the “House of Mirrors” and living with her “maque” (pimp) Arthur and his close friend Ernest, Jenny (described initially by Blanche as a “he-she-whatever”) is a cross-dressing frog-catcher of no fixed abode. When Jenny nearly runs Blanche down on her “free-wheeler” the two women develop a heart-warming and life-changing friendship. As with so many of Donoghue’s novels the politics of sisterhood, sisterly bonds and women’s friendship is a central motif throughout the narrative even long after Jenny has been killed. By smoothly transitioning from past to present throughout the novel (as the entire narrative is told once Blanche is on her way to a new life outside of the city) Donoghue creates a beautiful tension that immerses the reader in the “who-dunnit” of the crime narrative and, equally, in the question of Blanche’s plight, survival and future.
Throughout the novel Donoghue continuously engages with feminist politics and raises questions about the ethics of prostitution, cross-dressing, lesbianism, and sexual performance more broadly. It may be historical crime fiction but it is markedly engaged with the twenty-first century. In this respect, one of the most memorable moments is earlier on in the novel when Blanche, Jenny, Arthur and Ernest are talking about Jenny’s cross-dressing habits and, while Arthur reminds the group “there’s nothing trivial about clothes”, Blanche realises, “Funny that travesty’s all the rage on stage […] but if you step into the street the same pants will get you locked up”. Throughout the narrative Donoghue highlights the tension between sexual and gendered performance and points to the double standard that exists through society’s heralding of the on-stage burlesque dancer and prostitute Blanche compared to the punishment of cross-dressing Jenny. Similarly, through the character of Blanche the narrative challenges “the rhythmic friction between desire and disgust”.
Frog Music, then, is a literary gem. It continues the discussion proffered by many of Donoghue’s novels and short stories to date but, with its American setting, the French-born characters and language, and the added drama of the crime genre, it also shows Donoghue’s creative talent in a new light. I was gripped from the first page of the story and felt a whole range of emotions as I journeyed with Blanche through the streets of San Francisco. Throughout I was reminded of Donoghue’s earlier novel Slammerkin – especially as I was filled with fear and horror at the plight of Blanche as she battles to keep her son and the clothes on her back when everything else is taken from her– but, unlike Slammerkin’s protagonist Mary Saunders, in Frog Music the ending is a more hopeful one as Blanche journey’s to Sacramento “with an acrobat’s cocky smile”.