Frog Music

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Frog Music by Emma Donoghue, book reviewSan Francisco at the height of a heat wave with small pox raging. In the middle of that two women caught in a crossfire that leads to murder, Blanche and Jenny. Both are French, though Blanche doesn’t know it and Jenny is a transgendered kind of figure on a bicycle encountered in a crash. Blanche earns her living from dancing in a musical hall cum brothel and her fancy man Arthur and his friend Earnest earn their livings off her. Blanche also has a baby that she rescues from a Dickensian London circumstances in a storm of indignation.

The book actually begins with violent death the way most murder mysteries do. Jenny is shot full of buckshot through a window at night and the pellets skim Blanche’s cheek because she happens to bend over. Blanche thinks she sees an angry man’s face in the window. And that is when the story starts going back and forth between Jenny’s death, Blanche’s first meeting with Jenny and the details of Jenny’s life which are as mysterious as her death because Jenny is so hard to pin down.
Both Blanche and Jenny are victims of a kind – Jenny has been to prison for dressing like a man and earns her living catching frogs to sell to French restaurants. Jenny however has the ability to take charge of situations unlike Blanche and seems to be completely self-possessed, even when confronted with wailing babies. She also carries a colt at her hip and drinks like a man.

Emma Donoghue sketches the milieu with deft masterstrokes, though much of what she has to say can be anticipated by the reader – perhaps by accident, perhaps by design. Like the fact that P’tit is not being looked after, after Blanche has farmed him out, which is the best traditions of Dickensian drama, or that children in late nineteenth century worlds are as much victims as women whose only source of income is through the sale of sex. Or that everything about Jenny is not what it seems and the reasons behind her death are linked to what her sexual proclivities might have been. In this male dominated world, the only way an intelligent woman can possibly survive is to rise to the status of Madam and earn her independence in that way.

The characters Donoghue writes about are bar owners, Irish migrant farmers, Chinese laundrymen, pimps, whores and people who have come to the New World in search of a fortune. Any fortunes that exist are self-made and life is rough and ready. The twist is in the fact that the characters in her book actually existed, though not very much is known about them. Jenny Bonnet was an infamous cross dresser and led a mysterious life. The rest of the short biographies are to be found in the book’s Afterword, key to the spark of inspiration that led to the story.

While the title of the book is about the frogs that Jenny catches, it also refers to the French and their love for music. Frog Music is full of songs and Jenny, Blanche and the men are naturally good singers. Even the whiny baby stops crying when someone sings.

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Frog Music
by Emma Donoghue

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Written by Anjana Basu
Anjana Basu

Anjana Basu works as an advertising consultant in Calcutta. In 2003, Harper Collins India brought out her novel Curses In Ivory. In 2004, she was awarded a Hawthornden Fellowship in Scotland where she worked on her second novel, Black Tongue, published by Roli in 2007. In February 2010. her children's novel Chinku and the Wolfboy was brought out by Roli. She writes features for travel magazines and reviews for Indian newspapers.

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