Gold and grime

San Fran crime tale shocks and intrigues Nicky Pellegrino.

Emma Donoghue's second novel is based on a true murder story.
Emma Donoghue's second novel is based on a true murder story.

How to categorise Frog Music (Macmillan), the new novel by award-winning Irish-Canadian writer Emma Donoghue? Is it literary fiction, a whodunnit, a historical novel, erotica, fictionalised biography? Actually, it's all of those things but it's also that relatively rare beast, at least these days - feminist fiction.

Set in San Francisco during the heatwave and smallpox epidemic of 1876, this tale is set around real events and involves, for the most part, people from historical record.

Blanche Beunon is a French burlesquer dancer and sometime whore living in a menage-a-trois with her pimp Arthur and his close friend Ernest. All are former circus performers seeking their fortune in the new world.

Blanche is beautiful, highly sexual and sought-after. She is doing so well she has bought the building in Chinatown that she, Arthur and Ernest live in. Yes, she's had to farm out the care of her baby P'tit, a little accident that none of them can cope with, but Blanche justifies that and doesn't let it worry her.

Then she is run down in the street by a lanky daredevil riding a stolen penny-farthing bicycle. Jenny Bonnet is a troublemaker. She flaunts the law by dressing in male clothing and lives on her own terms, scraping by on what she earns hunting frogs to sell to French restaurants. Straight-talking Jenny makes Blanche question her choices. Why is she letting these two ne'er-do-well men take advantage of her? Why does she not have custody of her own child?

Frog Music leaps back and forth in time, from the beginning of this new and uneasy friendship to the events not long afterwards when Jenny is shot to death in a shocking crime that Blanche immediately blames her pimp for.

Inevitably, Blanche's battle to prove Arthur's guilt, to reclaim her child and free herself of everyone who has used her, takes her to dark, desperate places. San Francisco in the late 1800s clearly wasn't an easy place for a woman living on her wits, even one as street-smart as Blanche. As she begins to understand herself and the dead woman who has changed the course of her life, she risks everything.

Donoghue is best known for her best-seller Room, a novel inspired by the Fritzl family's escape from their dungeon in Austria.

Frog Music is a different sort of story but reflects the author's preoccupations with mother/child relationships, with limits and freedoms, and with outsider figures. The music of the period also sounds throughout, with lewd songs and music-hall ditties sung. Their provenance forms a part of the lengthy afterword, along with a very thorough glossary of the French terms used.

A great deal of research has gone into this novel but the weight of fact and detail doesn't prevent the story bouncing off the page.

All the colour and grit of the era is here. Frog Music is shocking in parts, explicit in others, touching and witty. It's a small slice of history, a re-telling of the lives of two women and an unsolved murder that might have been easily forgotten otherwise.

- NZ Herald

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