This original tale just leaps off the page. It is based on the true story of an unsolved murder of a frog catcher in San Francisco during a rare heat wave in 1876. A smallpox epidemic hits at the same time. It is an unusual but compelling piece of historical fiction, impeccably researched and entertainingly told.
Jenny Bonnet literally bumps into Blanche on the street while riding her high wheeler bicycle one day, and the encounter results in a unique friendship between the two women. Blanche is an exotic dancer, and works in a brothel. Her lover Arthur and his friend Ernest squander her earnings and form an odd ‘menage a trois’, until Jenny arrives on the scene and changes all of their lives forever. It is no spoiler to say that Jenny is shot in a grimy bar on the outskirts of town, because it happens on the third page.
Donoghue wittily captures the raucous atmosphere of this seedy, sticky and unhygienic world of San Francisco’s Chinatown, with the same panache and precision as she captured the claustrophobia in a small shed in Room. As an author she doesn’t believe in pages and pages of description, so the characters’ lives tell the story which keeps it moving. The dance tunes are woven seamlessly into the novel and further notes on them are given at the back. There is a glossary of French phrases given as well.
‘Frog Music’ is fiction but is completely based on true events. Only a few minor characters were invented. There are raw and crude scenes which may be a bit much for some, but are part of the story and the author handles them well. The appalling conditions that some women and children had to endure was admittedly hard to read, but the spirited determination of Blanche and Jenny is uplifting.
The book is sort of like “French bohemian meets the Wild West” – a quirky time and place which I enjoyed learning about, all wrapped up in an intriguing murder mystery! C’est si bon!