Irish-born author Emma Donoghue returns to historical fiction with her first novel since the 2010 runaway bestseller Room. Frog Music was inspired by a real-life unsolved murder in 1876 San Francisco, a good three decades after the Gold Rush. Cross-dressing Jenny, a voice of surprising common sense amid the wild culture of the time, was shot in cold blood at her friend Blanche’s house, and the murderer was never found.
It is evident that history is the star of this show. Blanche, a French dancer who supports her boyfriend, injured trapeze artist Arthur, by imaginative prostitution, gets in over her head when she invests in a block of apartments and finds herself unable to stay on top of the wave. When her child, whom she had imagined to be safe and cared for outside her life, surfaces in trouble, suddenly a more respectable life begins to exert its appeal.
Jenny makes a living by catching frogs to meet the considerable local restaurant traffic’s high demand, and she and Blanche cement their new friendship during expeditions out into the swamps and streams of the backcountry. Or do the two only know each other for a few hours before disaster strikes? The story is never quite clear, but the reader who is willing to live with ambiguity will find this book endlessly intriguing. Donoghue brings the setting, a smallpox-stricken summer, almost too vividly to life: The unwilling but fascinated reader will be transfixed by her descriptions of the disease’s “opalescent slime” and “dimpled red pearls . . . all across what used to be his lovely face.” References to some 30 songs of the time, many of them familiar (“How Can I Keep From Singing?” “Somebody’s Darlin’”) add to its period allure.
The French (“Frog”) connection may be strong, but this engrossing, truth-bending story is all American. You’ll find yourself enraptured by the intricate plot developments that will keep you revising your version of the action from one hour to the next.