Emma Donoghue probes unsolved murder in 'Frog Music'

Emma Donoghue (SUE REEVE, QMI Agency files)

Emma Donoghue (SUE REEVE, QMI Agency files)

JOE BELANGER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 4:08 PM ET

The breathless voice with the familiar Irish lilt is either in a rush or filled with excitement.

When talking to award-winning author Emma Donoghue, it could be either considering hours earlier she’d returned to Canada from a whirlwind promotional tour of England and Ireland for her new book, Frog Music, that’s garnering good to rave reviews.

“I’ve been blown away by the response,” said Donoghue who lives in London, Ont. “I thought (critics and the public) would smack me down for writing a totally different beast than Room.”

Frog Music, is a departure from Donoghue’s celebrated 2010 novel Room. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the 2010 Governor General’s Awards, and the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2011 while winning the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the Irish Book Award.

Room is the contemporary story of a boy held captive with his mother in a room for years by her abductor-rapist and the boy’s father. The book was inspired by the real-life story of Elizabeth Fritzl who was held captive in Austria as the sexual slave of her father. She bore seven children over a 24-year period until she escaped in 2008.

Frog Music is a historical murder mystery based on the real-life unsolved murder of a frog-catching, cross-dressing woman set in San Francisco during a heat wave and smallpox epidemic in 1876.

“I found (murder victim) Jenny Bonnet in someone else’s book called Wild Women,” explained Donoghue in a telephone interview. “I was instantly fascinated by Jenny’s story because I was always intrigued by cross-¬dressers and the silence and secrecy of their lives. But Jenny was this known character around town (who caught frogs for a living and dressed in men’s clothing which was illegal) and how she interacted with the judge and police, wise-cracking and joking — such a modern figure before her time. I love people who take the kind of risks I’d never take myself.”

When she investigated further and read an inquest report on Bonnet’s death, Donoghue was even more intrigued.

“The big surprise was this other woman I found (Blanche Beunon) when I was reading the inquest report and there was a line where she said ‘My ex-boyfriend stole my baby and I don’t know where it is.’ This was a real couple who had stashed their baby at a baby farm and were now quarrelling. So, I had a double mystery.”

Donoghue is no stranger to historical fiction.

Three of her six novels before Room — Slammerkin (2000), Life Mask (2004) and The Sealed Letter (2008) — are historical novels.

Unlike Room’s mother, the central character in Frog Music, Blanche, is “a genuinely bad mother,” Donoghue said.

The author said she enjoys writing historical fiction, particularly as it relates to social issues.

“I like to examine the origin of social issues,” said Donoghue, adding “especially how women were treated in society.”

Donoghue said she’s looking forward to getting back to London in a couple of weeks to reunite with her two children, Finn, 10 and Una, 6, and partner Chris Roulston, a professor of women’s studies and feminist research and French at Western University.

Donoghue is already working on a new book.

So, what might we expect next?

“A children’s book, said Donoghue.” “It is brand new for me and I get a bit of an adrenalin rush doing something different.”

joe.belanger@sunmedia.ca

Review: Frog Music by Emma Donoghue

Nancy Schiefer, Special to QMI Agency

Although she spins a good yarn, London writer Emma Donoghue's new novel doesn't have the same emotional heft as her 2010 Booker-nominated bestseller, Room, or as her follow-up, fact-based volume of short fiction, Astray, published in 2012. But both books, impressive in different ways, would have been difficult to match.

With Frog Music, Donoghue changes course.

The novel begins with a murder and with a clutch of characters seemingly at odds, both with themselves and their situations. But as circumstance begins to sort itself out, action in a slow-to-start story picks up and an interesting pattern emerges.

The book is based on a real-life, never-solved murder case, a crime Donoghue uses to good effect in a tale which slowly captivates the reader.

Frog Music opens in the post-Gold Rush San Francisco of 1876, a burgeoning town populated by failed gold diggers, Chinese immigrants, burlesque queens, pimps and prostitutes, a bustling boomtown down on its luck as it suffers the worst heat wave in its history while battling a smallpox epidemic.

It is into this unsavoury stew that Donoghue places the historical characters she uses to re-assemble records of a brutal and baffling crime.

But Donoghue's tale is not simply a mystery to be unravelled. It serves, as well, to underscore the writer's take on lower class women as victims of societal norms.

In the rough and tumble atmosphere of early California, women not only held no power, but were pawns of feckless men-on-the-make.

In the saloons, seedy boarding houses and brothels of the city known as The Paris of the West, deals were struck, enemies were dispatched and women were swapped or cashed in as easily as poker chips.

One such pawn is Blanche Beunon, a French burlesque dancer and part-time prostitute who has accompanied her handsome lover, Arthur Deneve, from Paris to San Francisco in search of a better life.

Once settled, her thankless task is to keep Arthur supplied with enough money to indulge not only his own expensive whims but those of his hanger-on crony, Ernest Girard, a lowlife pimp. Both men are wastrels and Blanche has been set up to cater to their needs, financial and physical.

To complicate matters, Blanche and Arthur have a one-year-old son (Blanche's only lapse of judgment) who has been farmed out to a rapacious "caregiver" until his busy mother can give him some attention.

Her retrieval of the traumatized infant, a "lumpen-headed goblin," and the boy's role in Blanche's changing fortunes becomes the crux of the story.

Donoghue's plot is further complicated by Blanche's brief friendship with Jenny Bonnet, an accidental acquaintance whose murder triggers the novel and leaves Blanche burdened with guilt.

A sexually ambivalent and mysterious figure, Jenny has "a talent for starting a row but none for holding a grudge," a young woman who wears trousers (illegal for females), rides a "high wheeler" through the streets of San Francisco and collects frogs to sell to local restaurants. Her relationship with Blanche is told in well-executed and intriguing flashbacks.

As to the startling violence of the murder, Blanche suspects that she, not Jenny, was the target and that Arthur is the culprit "whether he pulled the trigger himself or handed the dirty job off to Ernest."

Aware that she may abandon him, Arthur, she thinks, is capable of planning her death "as simply as he might order another bottle of wine, with a click of his fingers."

Blanche is outraged and is determined to escape Arthur's clutches and to avenge Jenny's murder.

In the book's Afterword, Donoghue explains she worked "with and around" the recorded facts of her characters' lives to fashion what she calls "a crazy quilt" of fact and fiction.

While this worked well with Astray, it is less effective here in a longer novel which needs some trimming.

But readers who savour mystery laced with humour, wickedness combined with wit and an abundance of vivid period detail, will enjoy Donoghue's new chronicle.

Others may find the novel slightly disappointing, an artful but sometimes implausible construct from a writer of formidable talent.

 

 


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