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Anyone familiar with summer in San Francisco does not think of heat. The air rising off the oven that is the valley in summer meets the cool, damp wind off the ocean and the result is fog that can keep much of the city unpleasantly cold. But the summer of 1876 was uncharacteristically hot, so hot that, in an age without air conditioning, or even dependable sources of ice, it was the first thing anyone talked about. The second would be the smallpox epidemic that was currently raging, one of a periodic series of visitations that were generally blamed on the Chinese population, even though there was little evidence to justify the charge.
FROG MUSIC takes place toward the end of that hellish summer, in September, and opens with an act that is a climax of the strains put in place by the weather, the tension, the sickness, and the general difficulty of surviving in what was essentially a frontier town with aspirations. San Francisco called itself "The Paris of the West," though those familiar with the genuine article would not be likely to confuse the two. Still San Francisco did attract a number of French immigrants, along with a greater number of assorted others who were attracted by its reputation for openness and an undefined bohemianism.
Among the fairly recent arrivals is an odd ménage à trois composed of an erotic dancer and former equestrienne with the Cirque d'Hiver in Paris, Blanche Beunon, aged 24, her maque (fancy man), Arthur Deneve, former trapeze artist, and Ernest Girard, a young man fiercely protective of Arthur, though not, evidently, his lover. We see how this stable, if unorthodox, relationship crumbles when it is examined by a fresh set of eyes, those of another most unorthodox observer, Jennie Bonnet, a young woman who wears trousers, rides a penny-farthing bicycle, and makes her living hunting frogs that she sells to restaurants.
As flamboyant as these characters may sound, they are all rooted in historical fact. Jennie in particular was notorious at the time for the way she dressed as well as for her willful indifference to any demand for conventional female behaviour. She found herself in jail on a number of occasions simply for wearing "men's dress," then a criminal offence. When she was murdered (the event with which the novel opens), her death was widely covered in the newspapers and her funeral attracted a large number of mourners.
Although Jennie dies on page five, she is far from absent from the novel. Donoghue's narrative circles around the events of the fourteenth of September, 1876, skittering away from the killing to a time before Jennie and Blanche met or moving forward to the aftermath of the murder, then back again, in closer detail, to September 14. It is an edgy and demanding technique and works brilliantly to keep Jennie's end central in the reader's mind. As Donoghue paces backward and forward, we understand more and more about Blanche and how she was utterly changed by her encounter with Jennie that lasted only a matter of weeks.
For Blanche is the central character here, and she is a complicated one. Though still quite young, she is neither weak nor a victim. She is shrewd in some things - she's managed to buy a tenement in her own name and collect the rents. She knows enough to keep money back for herself, while supporting both Arthur and Ernest. Before Jenny came into her life, she would have termed herself happy, but it is a happiness founded on wilful ignorance - she does not ask questions because she does not want to know. Though she is being sexually exploited by the men in her life and the madam of the house she works from, she also likes sex very much, even bad sex, bordering on rape. She enjoys the transitory power it gives her over the men who pant over her performances, but more, "her body enjoys having its mind made up for it."
Donoghue has researched the times carefully and provides telling accounts some of the abuses and injustices that flourished in San Francisco, despite (or, in certain instances, perhaps because of) its reputation for liberal toleration. The Chinese population, now surplus to requirements for railway labour, is the object of casual violence that can escalate into wholesale riot at any moment. Children are routinely abused, whether in reformatories or the sex trade. The house where Blanche works has a regular auction of girls as young as ten, the age of consent at the time. Unwanted babies may be placed in "baby farms," where the conditions rival those in Ceauşescu's orphanages. Blanche's shock at what she sees when, prompted by Jennie's bland questions, she finally visits the place her baby son is housed is the pivotal moment in the book.
It would appear that Blanche has never had a female friend until she met Jennie and it is her alternative female perspective that transforms Blanche's life as much as the sudden violence of her death. The scales, as they say, have fallen from Blanche's eyes and she is no longer able merely to accept what is and get on with things. She becomes a detective and in the end she discovers how Jennie came to be killed and by whom in the way detectives do, by following leads and asking questions, even if she flounders badly in her inquiries.
Donoghue intended FROG MUSIC as a mystery novel and she is far from ashamed to admit it. As she says, "I've written about crimes, but I've never before dared to attempt offering readers the pleasures I so enjoy myself when I read whodunits at their best: the tension, the fumbling, the guessing, the dread, and the final satisfaction." She succeeds magnificently on all counts and many more into the bargain.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, March 2014
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