San Francisco, 1876, and in the middle of a heatwave, 24-year-old burlesque dancer and enthusiastic whore Blanche makes a new friend. Jenny Bonnet is notorious throughout the frontier coast city for her insistence on wearing men’s clothes, her “high-wheeler” (penny-farthing) skills and her boho life, catching frogs to sell to restaurants. Mysterious and alluring to Blanche, she’s less welcomed by Arthur, Blanche’s mustachioed man/pimp, an ex-acrobat whose hold on her is total. He shares her out to his sinister friend, Ernest. And she has given up her child, P’tit, to a baby farm and … Stop! Don’t go away! I know what you’re thinking. More reprobates from a forgotten corner of history, who turn out to be lively, lusty and – this reading demographic being what it is – a little bit lezzy as well. If you haven’t already ordered it online, you’ve given up on it in the middle of this paragraph.
That would be a mistake.
Though the first chapters of Frog Music wobble like the proverbial high-wheeler, it quickly gathers speed to become something altogether more compelling. Donoghue’s true story – Jenny is violently and legendarily murdered three weeks into her friendship with Blanche – is festooned with thick description, a visceral otherworldly San Francisco, full of blackface music sellers and the era’s songs. The teeming, stewing sounds and smells of Chinatown, the foods and drinks and habits of a lost era – all to be swept away by the 1906 great fire that lay in their future.
Sadly, the big picture lets her down. For all the filigree, these people are too much like us, post-Auschwitz and Woodstock, their lives devoid of God, shame, eternity. And Blanche’s cheerful doling out of “below-jobs” is the happy hooker caricature at its worst. They come across like today’s Sunday-brunch, Dawkins-reading hipsters, but even the wildest childs of that era had a relationship to religion, albeit a fraught one. No one prays in this world, though it is visited by smallpox and sudden death, and in reality, prayers never left people’s lips.
Such anachronism is a great shame, because Donoghue has gone the extra furlong to recover dozens of lives; years of research in newspapers, police and shipping records and god knows what. It is performance art of a sort – to see how much of lost lives you can get back. Not merely their fate, but what they drank and passed in the burning streets. It remains not history, but burlesque, and it’s a damn fine one at that. XS
Picador, 417pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 12, 2014 as "Frog Music, Emma Donoghue". Subscribe here.