Frog Music is another creative and compelling work of historical fiction by Emma Donoghue. Based in San Francisco in the late 1870s, it tells the story of French immigrants Blanche Beunon, her lover Arthur, his companion Ernest, and the murder of a woman which changes everything.
The novel is dramatic from the very first chapter; Blanche, sharing a room with her friend Jenny Bonnet in the San Miguel Station, leans down to unravel a knot. The second she leans away from the window, a shower of bullets come through and leaves Jenny dead, much to Blanche’s shock, dismay, and anger. She returns to the city of San Francisco vowing to see her killer on the gallows. She fears for her life, and is convinced the killer is her now ex-lover Arthur.
The story is set over a very short period of time – just over a month – and consists of both flashbacks and present-time events, which allow the reader to see how Blanche and Jenny came to be in the San Miguel Station instead of Blanche’s home in Chinatown.
Blanche, having been a circus performer in France along with Arthur and Ernest, now makes a living dancing in the House of Mirrors. Making enough money to support the lifestyle of Arthur and Ernest, become a landlord, and live comfortably herself, Blanche is content with her life until she meets Jenny. Jenny is a trouser-wearing woman – unusual for that time – who attracts trouble and asks more questions than she answers, much to Blanche’s irritation. She begins making changes in her life, to her own surprise and Arthur’s annoyance, and tension grows as she starts focusing on her own happiness instead of his. As Arthur and Ernest become more threatening, Blanche is forced to join Jenny on the trip to San Miguel that ends in murder.
As Blanche recovers from the shock and tries to find the murderer, she finds more and more secrets about her own life as well as Jenny’s. Desperate for answers and somewhere safe to stay, she’s completely unapologetic and unashamed about how she makes her living and survives, and Donoghue is occasionally equally explicit in her writing. We see Blanche transform from a compliant lover to an independent woman in Frog Music, and throughout the novel she knows exactly who she is.
Based on true events, Frog Music is a thrilling historical fiction that’s consistent in its mystery and sensuality. While Emma Donoghue has written better, it’s still an excellent novel that’s very difficult to put down.