Historical fiction is all the rage these days in publishing and acclaimed novelist Emma Donoghue, a lesbian whose been widely lauded within the LGBT literary world, enters the fray with the evocative, mysterious “Frog Music,” a story woven around the real-life unsolved murder of Jenny Bonnet, killed near San Francisco in 1876.
Long after Jenny was dead, Blanche Beunon wondered if it was truly an accident that Jenny ran her over with a penny-farthing (one of those old-timey bikes with the gigantic front wheel). Jenny said she hadn’t meant it, but she’d known fully well who Blanche was; Jenny had seen her dance at the House of Mirrors, which made Blanche oddly embarrassed. So was it really an accident that a wandering woman in men’s clothing became acquainted with a burlesque dancer?
That was just one of the things Blanche pondered as she ran. Though she’d only known Jenny for a few days, they’d become fast friends. Even Arthur, Blanche’s amour since she was just 15, seemed amused by Jenny’s devil-may-care attitude and by the gun she casually carried in the pocket of her trousers. Arthur’s friend, Ernest, wasn’t quite as taken with Jenny, but Blanche wondered if that was because Jenny’s presence seemed to affect their ménage a trios.
Then again, Ernest was an odd duck, ever since their circus days. He’d been Arthur’s protégé, his best friend. Once Blanche became part of the Le Cirque d’Hiver, it was just the three of them and Ernest never seemed to mind. Until P’tit was born.
Until Jenny entered the picture.
Those were the things Blanche considered as she wandered the streets of Chinatown, nearly melting from the heat, avoiding buildings quarantined for smallpox. Were things falling apart before she brought P’tit home? Or was it, as Ernest claimed, all because of Jenny and her strange life?
How much did Blanche really know about Jenny Bonnet? Or Arthur, for that matter? She wondered, as she tried to find ways to get money to live and as she remembered the sight of Jenny’s bloody body lying on a bed.
With its bounce-around, “Pulp Fiction”-like format, “Frog Music” is confusing at first. It begins with a spectacularly bloody murder and proceeds with our heroine looking for the man she’s sure killed her friend.
But did he? Donoghue keeps her readers guessing, but we’re not merely caught up in a murder mystery. Blanche herself is just as much an enigma as the crime she’s trying to solve. I briefly even wondered if the character was imagining her surroundings, so dream-surreal is Donoghue’s writing at times.
The authenticity Donoghue brings to her work, something of a signature, lends richness and verisimilitude to the book. “Frog Music” is a can’t-miss work.