Buzzed Books #8: Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music
by Mark Pursell
If Emma Donoghue has a byword, it’s “immersion.” The Irish-born author—who first gained international literary attention with her 2000 historical picaresque, Slammerkin—has a knack for building fictional worlds that envelop a reader with the mesmerizing quality of an enchantment. Sights, smells, textures, emotions; blood, dust, lust and despair. These are the reagants with which Donoghue casts her spell. Slammerkin depicted the rise and fall of a prostitute in 17th-century England; 2010’s Room portrayed a young boy born and raised in the confines of a demented, inscrutable captivity (loosely based on the true story of Elisabeth Fritzl). Whether sauntering down the sooty closes of old London or marking off the boundaries of life in a 10×10 cell, Donoghue’s attention to both physical and emotional details allows her to not only paint us a vivid picture but place us inside it. It’s a talent that’s useful for any writer, no matter their subject, but it’s particularly handy when writing historical fiction. How else can you resurrect the feel of a bygone age if you can’t infuse a reader’s perception with what the air stank of then, or how the clothes chafed? How did the light look as it hit smoggy London in 1784? What was on the mind of the poor? Of the rich?
These preoccupations avail Donoghue a great deal of mileage in her newest release, Frog Music. Like Slammerkin, Frog Music reimagines a lost era with the Technicolor intensity of a Hollywood epic, but this time Donoghue’s adherence to verisimilitude takes her one step further; she recreates not only the time period but real persons that actually lived. Frog Music is the story of Blanche Beunon, a French expatriate living in post-Rush San Francisco who works as an exotic dancer and sometime prostitute. Blanche becomes entangled with a raffish young woman named Jenny Bonnet; Jenny dresses in men’s clothes and makes her living hunting frogs to sell to local restaurants. The friendship between the two very different women wakes up emotions and thoughts that have lain dormant in Blanche, much to the chagrin of her long-time pimp and companion, Arthur. The patterns of connection and disconnection that begin to spiral out of control among these principal players ultimately result in a murder, a murder that, like much else in the book, is sifted out of San Francisco’s actual history. However, where with Slammerkin and Room (and other novels) Donoghue merely took inspiration from real life, Frog Music is Donoghue’s attempt to resurrect actual persons no longer with us, and in doing so, attempt to arrive at some explanation for an unsolved crime, and a commiseration with a lost American era of chaos, death, and sacrifice.
It’s a noble and interesting idea, and Donoghue has proven herself more than capable at recapturing different times, places, and peoples. However, in chaining herself to a given set of historical events and characters, Donoghue does a disservice to her storytelling. Blanche’s saga, told in parallel timelines that the chapters alternate between, unfolds with the herky-jerky motion of old-time San Fran’s horse buggies and nascent trolley cars. One reason that Donoghue’s immersive style worked to perfection in novels such as Slammerkin and Room is that she contrasted her prose with a narrative that was sharp, clean, and powered by an insistent momentum. In Frog Music, however, Donoghue cleaves to a series of events that were never fully explained, and though she does her best to make fictional sense out of them, you can almost see her straining to make it work, weaving in disparate elements to both bolster her plotting and make use of the obviously prodigious research she undertook in preparation for writing.
The novel, as an organic enterprise, shudders under the combined weight of the unwieldy narrative and Donoghue’s textured prose, but to Donoghue’s credit, it never quite buckles, either. Perhaps this is the definition of a risk successfully taken. One gets the sense that the project didn’t quite work out as the author first intended, but despite that, the novel’s heart beats with a dusty, blood-encrusted life. While Frog Music doesn’t reach the elegant highs of Slammerkin or Room, it’s certainly more interesting and more deeply felt and imagined than a lot of new novels. This is, perhaps, Emma Donoghue’s greatest contribution to the modern literary scene. In an era where so many novels—and other forms of stories, too—seem written from the head, Donoghue writes from her gut. And even when the finished product stands up a little shakily, Donoghue’s creative conviction can neither be dismissed nor overappreciated. If only more contemporary novelists would follow her example.
Pair with: cheap beer, cheap gin, and/or cheap frogs’ legs!
Mark Pursell (Episode 75) is a lifelong geek and lover of words. His publishing credits include Nimrod International Journal, The New Orleans Review, and The Florida Review, where he also served as poetry editor. His work can most recently be seen in the first volume of the 15 Views of Orlandoanthology from Burrow Press. He currently teaches storytelling and narrative design for video games at Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida.