The title of Emma Donoghue’s new book, “Frog Music”, could mean any number of things. Set in San Francisco in the 1870s, one of the main characters hunts frogs for a living by supplying local eateries, and she claims to be able to understand the different noises they make. Another character, a burlesque
dancer, has recently immigrated from France and is familiar with her countrymen being referred to as “frogs”. Then there’s the old story about a princess kissing a frog in order to turn him into a handsome prince, moralizing about judging someone based on their appearance.
Just like the title, this book does not necessarily travel down a straight line; time is telescoped into a few weeks, and yet jumps back and forth, frenetically at times. We are lulled into thinking we are aware of what is going on, only to learn that what we thought was an ambiguity is actually a game changer. And through it all, the look and feel and sounds and smells of an 1870s boom town – both the good and the bad, the fun and the filthy – are cleverly, seamlessly, in evidence. At the heart of the story is Blanche Beunan, a dancer of some local renown who, along with her lover Arthur and his friend Ernest, have left France’s premiere circus (following Arthur’s fall in a trapeze act) to find fortune in America. By chance, Blanche comes to know Jenny, a young woman who dresses like a man (although it is illegal), and the two strike up an unlikely friendship. But less than a month later, Jenny has been murdered and Blanche is in fear for her life, suspecting that the bullets were meant for her, instead, fired by the man she has loved since she was 15.
Based on a true, unsolved murder, “Frog Music” is an intriguing and fast paced work that pulls the reader in at many levels, all of them compelling.