Some authors choose to adhere to a consistent writing style, so that a reader knows exactly what to expect when they pick up their new book. Other novelists enjoy crafting a new voice with every work they create, which can lead to pleasant surprises or bitter disappointments on the reader’s behalf. Acclaimed and award-winning author Emma Donoghue has recently become the Ridley Scott of writers, refusing to adhere to a single genre and presenting something wholly unique with each book she produces. While her most well-known novel, Room, is told from the first person voice of a five-year-old boy who has spent his entire life confined to a shed, she has also written a nineteenth-century, feminist domestic thriller in The Sealed Letter and a historically inspired tale of prostitution in Slammerkin, to name only two diverse works. It is therefore understandable that I picked up Donoghue’s latest work, Frog Music, with no idea of what to expect except for a quality piece of writing, an assumption that was not disappointed.
Frog Music is told from the perspective of French burlesque dancer Blanche Beunon, who finds herself living in San Francisco during the heat wave and smallpox epidemic of 1876 with her “mac” (pimp) Arthur and his best friend Ernest. Blanche has come to accept her life that includes use and abuse from these two men, but her eyes are opened when she befriends Jenny Bonnet, a free-spirited, cross-dressing frog catcher who asks tough questions and forces Blanche to see her life in a new way. When Jenny is shockingly murdered in front of Blanche, it is up to this determined dancer to piece together the parts of the puzzle and discover the truth about Jenny’s past as well as her death.
Blanche’s story is told alternatively through progressive flashbacks that interweave with the current narrative, so that the backstory is revealed a little at a time just as the main narrative progresses. The mystery of Jenny’s death and all that leads up to it truly does fascinate, as much as these engaging and vibrant characters themselves. The plot is based on a real life unsolved murder case and those involved, yet Donoghue has expanded upon the truth and crafted fictional characters to populate this world. She has also included a fair amount of real world music and song, and even includes an index that explains the historic background of each piece, further rooting the work in recognizable history. The story is believable only to a point, and includes a bit more graphic sexual content than is truly necessary, yet what else is a novel for if not to offer a bit of fantasy amongst its realism.
With the addition of Frog Music to her already acclaimed works, Emma Donoghue proves her versatility once again. Each of her novels is very unlike the others, yet every one is full of crackling prose and colourful, unforgettable characters that find themselves in fascinating situations. It is these individuals who form the core of her works, which are ultimately rooted in an exploration of humanity. Unashamedly entertaining and boasting a healthy dose of melodrama, Frog Music is a wild and genuinely suspenseful ride.