Sunday, March 30, 2014

Frog Music by Emma Donoghue

Emma Donoghue's Frog Music is a raunchy romp closely-based on historical fact. A chance encounter in 1876 San Francisco upsets a menage-a-trois and ends in tragedy.

Blanche, Arthur and Ernest are three former circus performers from France. In San Francisco, Blanche supports the men with income from burlesque dancing and prostitution. When Jenny, dressed in men's clothing and riding a stolen high-wheeler bicycle, bumps into Blanche, it's like she has knocked over the first domino in a set. Jenny's friendly curiosity goads Blanche into some serious soul-searching. Question: Where is Blanche and Arthur's infant son? Question: Is Blanche's love for Arthur reciprocated, or is he more interested in Ernest? During a smallpox epidemic in a summer heatwave, resentments simmer to the surface.

Donogue is great at evoking the details of time and place, immersing readers in the setting. Her characters are fascinating because of, rather than despite, their flaws. Amidst the almost vaudevillian narrative drive, Frog Music also addresses social and environmental issues like racism, misogyny, child welfare, and species extinction. Plus, Donogue takes a plausible crack at explaining a murder that has never been solved.

"There is one myth I would like to put to rest. Jenny Bonnet shows up all over the Internet these days as a proto-trans outlaw: presenting as male, persuading women to give up the sex trade and forming them into a thieves' gang. Attractive though this image is [...] I have found no evidence to substantiate it." - from Donoghue's afterword. Nevertheless, Jenny is my favourite character in this very entertaining novel.

Readalikes. Although I can't think of anything that's a close match, there are some similar elements in: Tipping the Velvet (Sarah Waters); Miss Don't Touch Me (Hubert & Kerascoet); True Grit (Charles Portis); Instructions for a Heatwave (Maggie O'Farrell); The Good Thief  (Hannah Tinti); The Coral Thief (Rebecca Stott); Outlander (Gil Adamson); The Sisters Brothers (Patrick DeWitt); and maybe The Little Shadows (Marina Endicott).

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