by Emma Donoghue
c.2014, Little, Brown; $27;
Once, it was the most natural question in the world: why?
With a child’s usual curiosity, you asked it incessantly. Why are dogs black? Why’s the sun hot? Why do birds fly away? Why?
You drove your mother nuts.
But as you aged, answers came easier and “Why?” grew faint. You didn’t need to ask “why” so much—except, as in the new novel Frog Music by Emma Donoghue, you needed the reason for a tragedy.
Long after Jenny Bonnet was dead, Blanche Beunon wondered if it was truly an accident that Jenny ran her over with a penny farthing. Jenny said she hadn’t meant it, but she’d known fully well who Blanche was; Jenny had seen her dance at the House of Mirrors, which made Blanche oddly embarrassed. So was it really an accident that a wandering woman in men’s clothing became acquainted with a burlesque dancer?
That was just one of the things Blanche pondered as she ran. Though she’d only known Jenny for a few days, they’d become fast friends. Even Arthur, Blanche’s amour since she was just fifteen, seemed amused by Jenny’s devil-may-care attitude and by the gun she casually carried in the pocket of her trousers. Arthur’s friend, Ernest, wasn’t quite as taken with Jenny—but Blanche wondered if that was because Jenny’s presence seemed to affect their ménage a trois.
Then again, Ernest was an odd duck, ever since their circus days. He’d been Arthur’s protégé, his best friend. Once Blanche became part of the Le Cirque d’Hiver, it was just the three of them and Ernest never seemed to mind. Until P’tit was born.
Until Jenny entered the picture.
Those were the things Blanche considered as she wandered the streets of Chinatown, nearly melting from the heat, avoiding buildings quarantined for smallpox. Were things falling apart before she brought P’tit home? Or was it, as Ernest claimed, all because of Jenny and her strange life?
How much did Blanche really know about Jenny Bonnet? Or Arthur, for that matter? She wondered, as she tried to find ways to get money to live, and as she remembered the sight of Jenny’s bloody body lying on a bed….
With its bounce-around, Pulp Fiction-like format, Frog Music is confusing at first. It begins with a spectacularly bloody murder and proceeds with our heroine looking for the man she’s sure killed her friend.
But did he? Author Emma Donoghue keeps her readers guessing, but we’re not merely caught up in a murder mystery. No, Blanche herself is just as much an enigma as the crime she’s trying to solve. I briefly even wondered if the character was imagining her surroundings, so dream-surreal is Donoghue’s writing, at times.
And that brings me to the best part: it’s not entirely imagined. This tale is wound around the real unsolved murder of Jenny Bonnet, killed near San Francisco in 1876. That authenticity, a Donoghue signature, lends definite richness to Frog Music, making it a book I don’t think you should miss. Why would you?