After the heuOGe success of deeply disturbing psychological thriller; Room, seasoned author Emma Donoghue’s work intrigues me greatly. Massively varied and hugely popular amongst the book crew, there really is no excuse for never having read any of her work before now. Having little desire to delve into the abuse and disturbance of her most famous novel, simply hand me over a sweet slice of historical fiction in a sunny locus, enthralling era, with a host of titillating characters and then, well… I’m yours!
Welcome Frog Music…
Like many of our greatest tales in contemporary fiction, in her latest novel Donoghue has drawn her story directly from history; the murder of la petite cross-dressing frog-catcher Jeanne Bonnet. A curious, rather charming figure whose story had become lost in the swathes of time.
Wilting under the heat of a San Franciscan summer, Blanche Beunon, burlesque dancer and high-class escort at the House of Mirrors co-exists quite happily (or so she thinks) with her partner Arthur and his companion Ernest, her young baby tucked away safely in a ‘farm’ within the city environs. Nothing can disturb this remarkably modern, free-spirited, independent young woman with the thriving young city at her feet……or so she thinks.
Crashing full throttle into Blanche’s life, both physically (pennyfarthing and all) and mentally, Jenny Bonnet is both a larger than life quirk on the San Franciscan scene and a complete enigma. Captivating her new-found friend and unintentionally holding up a mirror to her flaws and foibles, the two women embark on a spiffing adventure together, one of great fun and great heartache all at once and one that will inevitably end in tragedy.
In a genius twist of plot that greatly assists in setting out Donoghue’s murder mystery, we begin with said tragedy and hurtle back in time as Blanche, and the reader along with her, attempts to unravel the pieces and discover whodunnit … not as foregone a conclusion as we might first think.
Assisted by a plot that is flawlessly sewn together, this novel isn’t simply the tale of a violent crime. It is a bubbling melting pot of colours, smells and intrigues that made up the boom-town of 19th century San Francisco; an exhilarating, liberating place to be. A halfway house of criminals, businessmen and dandies where Donoghue’s wacky, unconventional characters are afforded the opportunity to make something of themselves, something they may not necessarily have managed so well in the ‘Old World’.
Blanche is refreshingly flawed and gutsy for a nineteenth century woman, her new friend Jenny breaking all the more barriers by wearing nothing but men’s attire, and constantly getting thrown in prison/into scrapes for it. Blanche also refuses to conform to the stereotypical ‘wife and mother’ role, as her raw, sometimes brutally honest feelings about her baby son ‘Petit’ and her unnatural role as his mother come to the fore. This novel avoids being resigned to the shelf for a ‘cracking good yarn’ and shows designs on something deeper as themes such as the smallpox epidemic (itchy) and Victorian baby farming (horrifying) take centre stage.
This novel delighted me. Emma Donoghue writes with great lucidity and a polished turn of phrase and art to her storytelling that belies her skill and experience. I may, one day, pick up Room, but I’m so glad I met her here first. History is where I’m at home and, judging by Donoghue’s back catalogue, perhaps where she is too.
Red Frog Tea by Infrogmation of New Orleans via Flickr