This is said to be the foreignest city in America; almost none of these people were born here. Back in Paris, Blanche remembers, there are so many protocols, so many ways to behave comme il faut, “as things are done”, because that’s how things have always been done. But San Francisco’s a roulette wheel, spinning its citizens and depositing them at random. Blanche has been driven around by cabbies who’ve claimed to be gentlemen temporarily down on their luck and she’s spent well paid nights with michetons who’ve boasted that they began as coal miners.
It is the summer of 1876 and in an inn just outside of San Francisco Jenny Bonnet, a cross dressing woman who catches frogs for a living, has been killed. Her friend Blanche, who would do anything to find her lost baby, is certain her estranged partner Arthur is somehow responsible. As the City suffers through a simultaneous heatwave and smallpox epidemic the streets are a dangerous place and people everywhere become desperate. But not Jenny, whose devil may care humour and ever present energy get her into just as many scrapes as she can get out of. With the exception of a shotgun blast.
For a novel that took me some time to get engrossed in, this one became a desperate page turner at the end. Donoghue tells the story from two different points in time, immediately after Jenny is shot and a month earlier when she and Blanche first meet. Blanche is a burlesque dancer and sometime prostitute who is doing fairly well for herself. She manages to buy the building she lives in and keeps her partner Arthur and his friend Ernest in style as they get around town pursuing gambling and various schemes. But Jenny’s friendship, her calm sense of injustice and shrugs in the face of moral ambivalence, forces Blanche to question her choices.
Jenny’s like a good strong drink when you didn’t even realize you needed one. Maybe the reason Blanche has never been one for making friends is that the women she’s encountered til now have bored her. Jenny’s an odd kind of woman: part boy, part clown, part animal. An original, accountable to no one, bound by no ties, who cocks her hat as she pleases. Their closeness has sprung up as rapidly and cheekily as a weed.
This is the second novel I’ve read of Donoghue’s and both have carried vein of the trials and triumphs of motherhood. Donoghue paints a world in which women, varied and individual as they are, have few options beyond their sexuality and their reproduction. Oh, and I should mention this novel is sexually explicit, sometimes uncomfortably so. Blanche’s life is hideously populated with sexual coercion and potential violence. Consider yourself warned. Jenny, who steps outside of the virgin/whore roles entirely, is imprisoned, challenged and spends her life avoiding police as well as her own troubled past. But she is convincing and charasmatic, with a long list of friends willing to do her a favour, far more than Blanche, when the chips are down. The easy friendship between the two was a joy to read and whether they would have become long term lovers in the end had Jenny not been killed is uncertain, I like to think yes. Especially enjoyable/heartbreaking to read is the biographical information on all the characters, only three of which are entirely fictional. Donoghue’s research went so deep she even includes a link to 20th Century recordings of all the music she quotes from, which contributes a great deal to the tone of the novel.
Something about the phrasing struck me as slightly false in the early pages of the novel but that misgiving had disappeared by halfway through. The time jumps were a little irritating, I just wanted to know whodunnit dammit, but by pursing it this way Donoghue ensured the suspense was brilliantly constructed. By the last few pages I was gripping my kindle with white knuckles, reading frantically, both dinner plans and the damn thing’s low battery warning threatening to cut me off. For me, this was a hugely satisfying novel, especially so because the world Donoghue has created is so real, so rich and a society not evolved so far from our own.
Frog Music, Emma Donoghue: four and a half stars.
Read it to: travel to a different place in time, enjoy the company of women, be thankful for vaccines.