Frog Music, by Emma Donoghue, Picador, 416 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-1447249740
On Thursday September 14th, 1876 a murder is committed in a one-horse town on the outskirts of San Francisco. Around a month before, the two women intimately connected to this crime – cross-dressing frog-catcher Jenny Bonnet and French burlesque sensation Blanche Beunon – had met by accident, by bicycle accident actually, forming a friendship that would prove fatally consequential for one and morally consequential for the other. Frog Music, Emma Donoghue’s latest novel, is both a whodunnit inspired by actual historical events and the tale of a reckoning with responsibility.
San Francisco is a city that can’t breathe, its air a “stinking miasma” thickened by a smallpox epidemic and the worst heat wave in living memory: “The health inspectors have nailed disinfectant sheets over many more doors; yellow flags hang like bunting.” The locals blame the Chinese for the disease, while the authorities clamp down on vagrants. “Cursing’s banned now, did you hear?” reports one character. “So’s having the DTs, looking deformed, flying kites …” This “cock-eyed metropolis” fancies itself as the Paris of the West but functions more like an overgrown frontier town. Barely policed, its dizzy inclines swarm with greasy swindlers, strutting new-money bourgeoisie, rag-tag immigrants and disillusioned miners panhandling for coins, the human detritus of the Gold Rush. Saucy entertainment is on offer to match all classes of wallets; at the entry level (so to speak) you have the “crib girls” who see “up to 100 customers a night”; for a few nickels more you could cadge a streetwalker; but if money is no object you head for the House of Mirrors, a bordello within an Italianate mansion run with canny proficiency by Madame Johanna, a blow-in from Prussia with a conveniently missing husband. Here you can bid for a virgin (ten being the legal age of consent, not that anyone is checking), or splash out on a burlesque starring Blanche la Danseuse, “an expert tease, an allumeuse who lights the flame and snuffs it, lights and snuffs it”. Blanche earns fifty dollars for public performances and more in private rendezvous with her michetons (johns). Given that a dollar then was roughly the equivalent of twenty-two dollars today, Blanche Beunon is one very high-class whore.
Jenny Bonnet is “the friend Blanche has been waiting a quarter of a century for without even knowing it”. Gangly, pugnacious and pistol-packed, Jenny tolerates jail time because she’s too stubborn to quit wearing trousers. She has “a talent for starting a row, but none for holding a grudge”, and although only three years older than Blanche, she’s a lifetime the wiser and quickly susses out her new pal’s ménage à trois predicament. Blanche lives with the elegant dandy Arthur Deneve, and Arthur’s man’s man, Ernest; a “matched pair of pugs” who, Jenny guesses correctly, “take a great deal of feeding and grooming” while squandering Blanche’s earnings on chicanery, faro and wine. Jenny shares Madame Johanna’s opinion that Blanche “lacked judgment when it comes to carnal matters”, though they have very different notions about how to change her ways.
Reading many works by a single author over a short period of time is – let’s be honest – a strange, unnatural practice, but Emma Donoghue is terrific company. I read Frog Music together with a good slice of her prolific output, which includes another seven novels, three short story collections, plays for stage and radio, and scholarly works exploring the literary history and culture of lesbian relationships. Born and raised in Ireland, Donoghue now spends most of her time in Canada, and although often pigeonholed as a writer of lesbian literature, her range is significantly broader, and covers social, political, and gender issues in settings both historical and contemporary.
Donoghue’s narratives often upend social and romantic stereotypes, and her unconventional relationships – and by unconventional I don’t simply mean that she sometimes portrays lesbians or gays – probe our complex motivations. She recognises that love and friendship are often buttressed by messy bargains struck due to our shifting webs of needs and desires, including lust, envy, fear, guilt, poverty, wealth, or loneliness. One of Blanche’s most refreshing characteristics is her joy in her own sensuality; she would describe Arthur as her love-match but in reality she tolerates his leeching because it is sexually convenient. In The Sealed Letter (Donoghue’s novel from 2008 about a scandalous Victorian divorce), Helen Codrington rekindles an acquaintance with her former friend Emily “Fido” Faithfull for selfish reasons masked as affection while Fido reciprocates through convoluted motives of her own, and in her superb short story “Touchy Subjects” (from her 2006 collection of the same name), two Dublin women and one man strike a deal that could be perceived as inappropriate (at best) but instead proves tender and fitting.
Not surprisingly, Donoghue is particularly adept at dramatising the spectrum of female relationships: between siblings, partners, co-workers, mothers and daughters, mentors and acolytes. To quote from The Sealed Letter, she is intrigued by “that electric train of feeling that can link two women of different ages, backgrounds, temperaments; that throb of sympathetic mutuality, that chiming note outside the range of men’s hearing”. Blanche and Jenny from Frog Music (like Helen and Fido in The Sealed Letter or Mary Saunders and Doll Higgins in Slammerkin, her novel from 2000 set in late eighteenth century Britain), are neither straightforward chums nor lovers but a peculiar variant of sisters-in-arms, striving side by side – and not always empathetically – to survive in a patriarchal world. All of these women recognise the basic unfairness of society; as Madame Johanna remarks in an allusion to the current economic paradigm, there are “ninety-nine in the gutter for every one in a mansion”, while Mary Saunders from Slammerkin puts it more tartly: “The meek didn’t inherit the earth … The meek inherited bugger all.”
Motherhood emerges as a central theme in Frog Music and Donoghue, as always, refuses to sentimentalise women’s relationships with children while acknowledging the intoxicating-suffocating strength of the bond. Blanche’s feelings for her rickets-ridden tadpole of a son, while he sucks on a doorknob and pisses down her bodice, are conflicted at best. Prior to reliable contraception, having children could be a moral or economic hazard as well as (or rather than) a blessing and, to complicate matters further, up until the turn of the twentieth century women were not granted equal parental rights. Helen, the disgruntled wife in The Sealed Letter, baulks at the price she could pay should she and her husband divorce: “If women could shed their husbands without risk of losing their children too,” her lawyer remarks, “it is feared that an alarming proportion of them would do so!” In Room (Donoghue’s taut best-seller from 2010), the mother endures an horrific ordeal while managing to keep her son safe, and even Blanche, railing against that tightening noose of maternal affection, and “with a flash of contempt for her whole sex”, admits “this is why women don’t start wars … It’s the blasted babies.” Then, as now, women struggled to find a balance between work and motherhood, between unfettered independence and bread-and-butter practicality; often it was the care of their children that proved to be the pivotal factor in deciding exactly how far they were prepared to “lean in”.
Of course Donoghue’s primary concern as a writer, editor and historian has always been women’s fight to achieve economic and sexual autonomy. Barred from higher education and the professions, often they had little choice but to separate from matters of the heart and calibrate with social mores and the weights of their purses or their conscience, to exploit their only commodity – their bodies – either through the conventional routes of marriage, factory work, or service, or the more unconventional routes of self-employment or prostitution. Helen’s husband in The Sealed Letter considers her “a sort of engine of idleness; all she does is consume”, oblivious to the irony that middle class Victorian society had raised her to do little else. In Frog Music Jenny attempts to evade cultural norms by disguising herself in men’s clothing and developing a unique skill (frog-catching) to secure financial independence. Meanwhile Blanche suffers from the delusion that she controls her own exploitation. She “never exactly intended to be a soiled dove (that curious phrase), but nor can she remember having put up any real objection; she stepped into the life like a swimmer entering a lake, a few inches at a time”. An unconvincing mixture of worldly and naive, she sure knows her way around a bedroom and wisely invests in real estate, but for a woman of her age (twenty-four) in her profession, it stretched credulity that she was not only oblivious to the existence of baby farms but horrified that a mistress of such an enterprise “encourages some crops and discourages others, depending on the market”.
Inevitably the character of Blanche draws comparison with Mary Saunders, Donoghue’s finest literary creation. In Slammerkin, a memorable evocation of the tragic consequences of poverty and indifferent mothering, fifteen-year-old Mary becomes a prostitute after being raped in exchange for a ribbon. (One hundred years before Blanche arrived in San Francisco – by way of comparison – a fuck with Mary in working class eighteenth century London cost a “cully” or john a shilling.) After a botched abortion Mary tries to crawl back into respectability, first by becoming a maid, then a seamstress. Unlike Blanche she never gets a second chance, but she is feistier and sly, and less gullible, less accommodating of the expectations of her so-called betters:
The first thing Mary did when she finally reached the attic room, late that night, was to pull The Whole Duty of Woman out of her pocket and drop it into the stained pot under the bed. The last thing she wanted was a book to tell her how to be a good maid. She could rip out the pages one at a time to wipe her arse.
Blanche and Mary barter sexual favors in an attempt to control their fates, but Blanche enjoys sex too much to ensure such bartering is economically beneficial, whereas “ambition was an itch in Mary’s shoes, a maggot in her guts”, which led to recklessness.
Slammerkin, like Frog Music and many of Donoghue’s fictions, is based on actual historical events. She undertakes copious research and has admitted to enjoying this aspect of her work immensely. However it was a contemporary news story from Austria in 2008 – the forced imprisonment and sexual abuse of Elizabeth Fritzl by her father – that inspired Room, her best-known work. While planning her novel about five-year-old Jack and Ma, Donoghue made two very smart decisions; she removed the taint of sensationalism by not making Ma’s captor a blood relation, and gave the reader a way into such difficult material by using Jack’s, rather than Ma’s, point of view. And the most remarkable aspect of Room, beyond the courage of its conception, is indeed the voice of Jack. “When I tell her what I’m thinking and she tells me what she’s thinking, our each ideas jump into our other’s head, like coloring blue crayons on top of yellow that makes green,” he says, with his heartbreaking combination of imagination and optimism. “Maybe it’s not Room if Door’s open,” he notes later with regret; to our eyes Room is a prison but to him it is home, a world entire and a place of wonder where many objects deserve a capital letter: “I climb on Rocker to get books from Shelf and make a ten-story skyscraper on Rug.” Though marketed and perceived as a thriller, Room is actually a shrewd allegory about motherhood. It is tangibly claustrophobic and emotionally astute, especially to those of us who spend our time in close (but not this close) confinement with a five-year-old, and Jack touches on his mother’s poignant resiliency when he says of her periodic depressions that “Ma’s never Gone more than one day”.
Donoghue followed Room with Astray (2012), a collection of fourteen stories once again inspired by historical events, ranging over settings from 1639 to 1967, and linked by the emotional dislocations caused by migration. It is a remarkable performance by any measure, with at least two standouts – “The Hunt”, a chilling account of war crimes, and “Snowbound”, about an unlikely love affair – but in comparison to works by, for example, Alice Munro or George Saunders, their brevity doesn’t always belie depth. The stories exhibit a sort of dazzling cleverness, like a virtuoso musician performing party pieces, and one or two veer close to literary ventriloquism. The inclusion of historical footnotes at the end of each one only serves to underline a sense of contrivance. Nevertheless, Astray, combined with her earlier collections Touchy Subjects, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits (2002) and Kissing the Witch (1997) provide further proof, as though any were necessary, that Donoghue can write about every human predicament in whatever setting she chooses.
Integrating period detail into historical fiction is a tricky business. Though she handled this deftly in Slammerkin and Astray, Donoghue is not always so successful. No doubt some readers who first discovered her through Room will have tracked down her previous work and lit upon The Sealed Letter, a novel that could not be more radically different in tone. Although well executed, it lacks pace and immediacy, as though the starchy pretensions of its Victorian setting had bled into its creation; the adjective that sprung to mind while reading it was “venerable”. Frog Music, on the other hand, is neither starchy nor venerable; it hurtles, raucously, like a bicycle down a San Francisco incline – a bicycle, granted, that could have benefited from more judicious breaking now and then. Both novels share unfortunate instances of expositional dialogue, an occupational hazard of integrating so much (too much?) research. In The Sealed Letter a husband conducts a long conversation with his daughters about different classes of Victorian warships, an exchange intended, I assume, to dramatise his daughters’ attempts to ingratiate themselves, but which proves a less successful use of period detail than his later comments about the London Underground which actually turn the plot. In Frog Music, Jenny and Blanche also conduct some clunky conversations. Jenny, for example, explains her enthusiasm for one firearm over another and clarifies the difference between a Patrolman and a Special. Blanche also notes that: “The neighborhood’s notoriety is more than half-invented to give the tourists a thrill,” to which Jenny agrees that “the Barbary Coast dens are ten times more dangerous.” The women don’t actually turn away from one another to face downstage during such chitchat as though addressing an invisible audience, but it feels like they do. This pantomime aura is exacerbated by a lot of exaggerated gesturing – cheeks scorch, eyebrows soar and characters hiss, scowl and cackle – together with the moustache-twirling oiliness of Arthur and Ernest. Granted such traits could be deliberate echoes of the “penny dreadful” form, but Frog Music’s overall tone is not satirical.
Of course, the benefits of her rigorous scholarship are obvious; the reader can be confident that Donoghue won’t confuse her penny-farthings with her high-wheelers, her paduasoy with her brocade. The snag is that such prolific erudition can feel like a crutch to avoid more complex psychological territory, as though one is being fed information rather than story, breadth rather than depth. Having expended considerable effort on research, though, it must be tempting to use it, and the most marked example in Frog Music is the inclusion of partial lyrics from around thirty songs contemporary with the book’s events. By their very nature song lyrics tend to be simplistic, so the reader needn’t ponder long to elicit meaning. One or two were amusing, but I found myself skimming the rest as they didn’t always illuminate or undercut the text. Such additions need to earn their keep or they can feel indulgent. The French words scattered throughout felt more appropriate, though it would have been beneficial to list them alphabetically in the glossary rather than in the order they appear, given that many readers will know some but not others.
Overall her work is deeply physical, and I don’t mean raunchy – though it can be saucy, and there were times when Frog Music skirted close to fifty shades of Donoghue. By physical, rather, I mean her narratives are steeped in the senses, in the concrete world. Her cities heave and clamour. Her characters smell, taste, hear, touch and see. There is a deal of dust, dirt, manure, slime and bodily fluids on her pages, as Frog Music can attest – it is gloriously tactile – and this is one, if not the primary, reason she is such terrific company. Nevertheless she’s not always adept at parsing apart one critical detail from all the rest, and conveying what it means to her characters or to us, in a metaphorical sense. Given the importance of women’s bodies to their economic and social survival (as discussed before) perhaps this sensory style is not surprising, and her habitual attention to her characters’ wardrobes is merited, from Blanche’s second-best parasol, to Jenny’s cocked hat, to Arthur’s rings and cufflinks, to Mary Saunders’s white velvet slammerkin (a loose dress) embroidered in silver thread, to the touching moment in Room when Ma is faced with her first ever pair of skinny jeans. Appearances matter: clothes are enablers of disguise or reinvention, markers of personal identity, sexual availability and social status. They are “the greatest lie ever told”, claims Mary, prepared to die for a scrap of scarlet satin.
The focus on the physical is underscored in Frog Music by a very close third person point of view, which partially triggered that dangerous drift into unnatural dialogue because it limited Donoghue’s ability to shoehorn in period details. Given that Blanche rarely sees beyond her nose (until about two-thirds of the way into the novel), it might have helped if Donoghue had allowed the reader (if not Blanche), to lift his or her eyes to the heavens now and then to maximise dramatic irony. I wasn’t always convinced in Frog Music (and in some of her short stories), that Donoghue struck the right balance between the physical and the metaphysical. When she does hit the brakes and allow time for her characters to reflect, the results are often pat rather than nuanced or surprising. “Blanche won’t sneer, anymore, at the folks who keep their heads down and toil; they’re earning themselves a kind of liberty, a dollar at a time,” or “Life brings all manner of punishment, Blanche just hopes those men will get their share.” Sensible and apt ruminations, no doubt, but deeper introspection on life, the universe and everything usually results in conclusions knotty and organic, not superficial and folksy, and this is where my review brushes against an ongoing and contentious debate about the difference between genre and literary fiction.
I often dodge this issue by endorsing the view that there are only two kinds of books: those that are well written and those that are not. Nevertheless (and at the risk of sounding elitist) there are differences between genre and literary fiction (apart from the latter’s focus on language and poetics), and those differences derive not from plot, setting, or certain formulaic conventions, but from authorial ambition and intent. Henry James once wrote that a successful novel, even if historical in setting, must be a “living novel” concerned with the “present palpable intimate”; it must wrestle to get at the very soul, the very consciousness of its characters, to reveal the universal human condition. “Literary” then, could be said to describe those works that exist outside of time; no one would consider Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness or Charles Dickens’s Bleak House to be irrelevant to a contemporary audience. Donoghue’s favourite author is Dickens, and Dickens was exceptionally gifted at striking a balance between the social, political, and personal; like an auteur, he knew when to cut, when to do a close-up, when to use a wide-angle or pan, when and how to manipulate his free indirect style. Whenever Donoghue gives her characters a similar amount of space, such as in the short story “Snowblind” or in the novel Slammerkin, her fiction deepens and expands. The balance between her characters’ interior and exterior worlds in Slammerkin was extraordinary; it is her most successful – and her most Dickensian – work.
These thoughts about the “present palpable intimate” reminded me during my, admittedly delicious, Donoghue immersion, of remarks made by James Wood in The New Yorker (July 2010) about David Mitchell’s The Thousand Suns of Jacob Zuma: “Never, when reading Mitchell, does the reader worry that language may not be adequate to the task, and this seems to me both a fabulous fortune and a metaphysical deficiency.” Donoghue took an enormous risk with Room and I worried that language might not be adequate to the task, but she proved me wrong. Even though Jake’s point of view caused some problematic plot contortions, the first half of the book is a tour de force and I forgave the flaws in its second half because of her audacity. I’m convinced her unforgettable dramatisation of the daily rituals of Ma and Jake are due to her empathetic imagination (and to being the mother of a five-year-old) rather than to any research gleaned from psychologists or newspapers. Nowhere in Frog Music is there a scene as moving as the ending of Room, and neither is there a line as fine as this from Slammerkin: “She came down with a clean snap and the crowds scattered from the swing of her feet.”
Never while reading Frog Music did I feel that language might not be adequate to the task: never did I feel that delicious agitation (unlike with Slammerkin and Room), when I wondered whether Donoghue had overreached. I knew Donoghue could pull Frog Music off: she could pull this juicy potboiler off while simultaneously riding a high-wheeler backwards and scrimshawing the lyrics to “Little Brown Jug” on whalebone. Though her sharp examination of gender roles, motherhood and racism has contemporary resonance, her canvas wasn’t large enough, her metaphysical and cultural intents too meagre.
But should that matter? Do we expect an author’s new book to be better than their previous releases? No, not necessarily: when we review the canon of any artist some works will rise above the others, and those works may not necessarily be their debut or finale. It is more a question of whether, if a writer is as talented as Donoghue, we should expect her (as she has before) to take greater risks, exhibit greater ambition? Are we happy with a snappy penny dreadful or do we yearn for her to attempt a work that will be read one hundred years from now – a “living” literary novel? As a fiction writer myself, I baulk at such presumption – all artists must be free to create whatever they damn well please in whichever manner they damn well want – but as a critic, I confess, I hope for precisely that.
Susan McCallum-Smith is the author of Slipping the Moorings (2009), and her essays and reviews have appeared in The Scottish Review of Books, AGNI, The Southern Review and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Originally from Scotland, she currently lives in Ireland.