BANGALORE: Historical drama at its verbose best, Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music is sexy, mysterious and full of courage. Frog Music, part murder mystery, part social commentary of the late 19th century San Francisco, is Donoghue’s follow up novel to her Booker nominated Room.
It’s the summer of 1876, and San Fransisco is caught in the middle of the most debilitating heat wave it has ever seen; add to that a vicious small pox epidemic and tensions have never been higher. The original cultural melting pot, SF is the centre for immigrants of all kinds, and one such is 24-year-old Blanche, a French burlesque who makes comfortable money in SF to own a six-storeyed building in Chinatown. She uses this money to support herself, her long time seedy boyfriend and pimp Arthur and his best friend Ernest. Arthur and Blanche also have an infant son, P’tit, whom neither of them are too happy about. As a result, they send P’tit away to a farm, believing that the country air will do him better.
Getting caught in the midst of this comfortable set-up is Jenny, a happy go lucky cross-dressing frog catcher (yes, that’s a thing), and as soon as she barges into Blanche’s life (by nearly running her over), she topples it inside out. They become good friends, but when Jenny starts asking the more uncomfortable questions, things start to unravel at Blanche’s home. A fight occurs and Blanche and Jenny escape, Blanche forgetting all about her son. This in itself should tell you how uncomfortable Blanche is with the prospect of motherhood.
A murder takes place, and we find Jenny gunned down while she was in the middle of humming a tune (the book is filled with songs, sometimes tampering the flow of the story). Blanche truly believes she was the intended victim, and in the rage of her grieving, she vows to avenge her dear friend.
The book is split into two narrative threads. The first follows Blanche after Jenny’s murder as she makes her way through San Francisco’s underbelly, and she also finds her son in the process, though not where she expects. The second strand goes back in time, before the murder took place, delineating Jenny and Blanche’s friendship.
The introduction to the book tells us that the novel is based on true events and nearly every character is based on a living person. The research Donoghue has put into the book is apparent through her vivid portrayal of San Francisco - a living, breathing character in itself - constantly shifting, changing shape, blurring boundaries of race and culture. The sex depicted in the novel is over powering and even nauseous at times - from brothels to streets to salons, the physical heat of the city finds its way into the bodies of these characters.
And Donoghue finds her canvas is suddenly quite large here - while Room saw her build a large and thickly-populated narrative within four walls, Frog Music explores an entire sprawling city and she owns this city with practised ease, helped largely by her extensive research, of course.
But what really lights up this novel is the brief and unlikely friendship between Blanche and Jenny. While Blanche starts out as a character who may seem witless, self serving and extremely annoying at the most; the transformative powers of their friendship give her purpose and motivate her to take control of her life.
The book also takes a close look at women - their relationships, their innate strength to surpass the most difficult situations and the sometimes overrated role of the mother.
Verdict: Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music may make for a quick summer read, mediocre in its narrative and form, superlative in some of its descriptions and characters.