Women on the Margins

A French-flavoured 19th-century murder mystery, based on a true story

If your experience of Emma Donoghue’s fiction is limited to her bestselling 2010 novel, Room, arguably her breakthrough work, then her latest, Frog Music, will not be what you expect.

Room is a tightly focused, self-contained psychological thriller, told from the point of view of five-year-old Jack, born and raised in a small room where his ma has been imprisoned for seven years. (A half-dozen people, including one of my daughters and one of my oldest friends, have told me Room was the best novel they ever read—ever. It is certainly in my top five.)

Frog Music, Donoghue’s eighth novel and 15th book, is much closer in tone and flavour to Astray, Donoghue’s 2012 collection of short stories, all based on historical incidents or characters from the fringes of society. Frog Music is a murder mystery based on an actual historical event: on September 14, 1876, notorious cross-dresser Jeanne (a.k.a. Jenny) Bonnet, who had emigrated from France to California as a child, was shot through the window of a rented room in San Miguel Station, a small town just outside San Francisco. In the room with her at the time of the murder was another French émigrée, Blanche Beunon, a dancer and prostitute. The two women were on the run from Blanche’s maque, Arthur Deneve, and Deneve’s ami intime, Ernest Girard. Both men were considered suspects in the shooting, and Beunon was convinced they were responsible. But the question of who committed the murder, or why, was never officially answered.

Donoghue tells the story in several narrative streams, beginning with the primary story of the murder—which opens the novel, by the way; no spoiler here—and Blanche’s desperate attempts over the next few days to find out exactly what happened, who pulled the trigger and whether she, in fact, was the intended target. Also pursuing the story are a reporter, “Cartwright of the Chronicle,” and Detective Bohen, from the nascent San Francisco police department. Blanche wants Bohen to arrest Arthur, but the maque has fled, taking their son, P’tit Arthur, as well as her stash of emergency cash and the proceeds from selling all of her belongings, including the building in which they were living. The murder is a big story in San Francisco. Jenny, a gatherer of frogs for San Francisco’s French restaurants, was well known in the city as a flamboyant eccentric, arrested every month or so for her habit of dressing in men’s clothes. After the killing, we follow Blanche as she does what she must to earn money, gives testimony at the inquest investigating Jenny’s death, attends Jenny’s funeral and burial, and attempts to recover her son.

As well, there is the story of the relationship between Blanche and Jenny, beginning about a month before the murder. That summer in San Francisco, “the Paris of the West,” was blistering, record-breaking hot, and the city was in the grip of a smallpox epidemic. In Donoghue’s retelling, at least, Blanche and Jenny—who pronounced her surname in the French way, Bonnay—had met when Jenny ran Blanche down in the street while riding a “high-wheeler,” what in another novel might be called a penny-farthing.

“The lanky daredevil jumps up, rubbing one elbow, as lively as a clown,” Donoghue writes. “‘Ça va, mademoiselle?’ The fellow’s observant enough to read Blanche’s nationality from her style of dress. And the accent is as French as Blanche’s own. But the voice—Not a man’s, Blanche realizes. Not a boy’s, even. This a girl, for all the gray jacket, vest, pants, the jet hair hacked above the sunburned jawline.”

The two women eventually retire to Durand’s brasserie, where they eat garlicky frog legs, harvested by Jenny that very day, drink wine and, finally, resist the boorish advances of an obnoxious, drunken man who wants to buy sex from Blanche. In the incident’s violent aftermath, the two women end up back on the sidewalk along Kearny Street, and a friendship is born. “Jenny’s my only friend in the world,” Blanche says later.

Donoghue—born in Dublin but living in London, Ontario, with her partner and their two children—seamlessly incorporates the backstories of Arthur, Blanche and Ernest, who met in Paris where Arthur and Ernest were aerialists with the Cirque d’Hiver. Blanche was a star-struck 15-year-old who ran away to join the circus and became an equestrienne. Their emigration to San Francisco (there was apparently a large French community in the city in the 1870s) is given relatively short shrift, but it is clear the American West is good for them. Blanche becomes Blanche la danseuse, performing “leg shows”—stripping while singing bawdy songs—and doing even better, financially, on post-performance “dates” with select members of her much-aroused audience. Madame Johanna, proprietress of the House of Mirrors, where Blanche is employed, becomes a sort of mentor.

The path from that fateful meeting-cum-collision on Kearny Street to the bloody murder in San Miguel Station is enriched by side trips into the San Francisco justice system, the city’s notorious “baby farms,” circus life in 1870s France, popular music around the world, smallpox, burlesque and prostitution, and the Bohemian life, which Arthur and Ernest claim to be living.

One of the many delights of Frog Music is the novel’s afterword, a collection of fascinating notes on the history and characters behind the fiction. There is also a glossary of French words and terms, the slangier of which in many cases would be unsuitable for a family publication. Equally beguiling is the section on the romantic and bawdy ballads, traditional French and American songs, popular 19th-century tunes, minstrel-show ditties and even hymns and spirituals, all of which are important elements in the book.

Cartwright’s stories for the Chronicle (the reporter is one of the few invented characters in the book) are fantastical agglomerations of half-truths and outright fabrications. As if the true facts—a cross-dressing frog hunter! Burlesque dancers! French acrobats!—were not enough.

San Francisco itself, at least in the parts where this novel is set, is sprawling, dangerous, hectic, smelly, nasty, bloody and dirty. Donoghue does not shrink from giving us specifics. Arthur’s bout with smallpox is rendered in gruesome detail. Sex scenes are graphic.

It is not Room, not even close, although the -writing, like the writing in Room, seems more aggressive, direct and faster paced than in Donoghue’s earlier fiction. Perhaps more North American? But having said that, Frog Music is of a piece with her earlier historical fiction: beginning with a real person or historical event, riveting, ambitious and well executed; strong women characters in strong relationships with other women. Emma Donoghue is a treasure, and Frog Music is a gift to readers.