Frog Music is nothing like Donoghue’s much acclaimed novel, Room. It is different in every way and that struck me as quite remarkable. So often writers fall into a groove of sorts and then struggle to emerge from the other side and recreate themselves anew. Donoghue has indeed proven her abilities as a master of a particular kind in this book.
Set in San Francisco in 1876, Frog Music is an historical fiction. One of the most powerful elements of this tale is not the plot, nor the characters, but rather the atmosphere of the city as it sweltered in an unusually hot and plague ridden summer. The street scenes in this book breathe with a life of their own and the cityscape is almost a subtext to the story itself. Donoghue depicts San Francisco as a cultural melting point wrought with racial friction and intense discrimination. The world she describes is replete with poverty, underpaid Chinese workers and a lively prostitution industry. The characters in this text each play a central role in fleshing out this drama. Woven into this tapestry is a patriarchal domination which drives our protagonist to action.
While the novel is based upon real events through the character Jenny (something I didn’t know until I had finished reading it!), what really intrigued me was the protagonist, Blanche. From the outset, Blanche is depicted as a strong, forceful woman who is successful enough to own a building, charge rent to tenants and buy all she needs to live in the fashion to which she has become accustomed. She has built her small kingdom through dancing and prostitution which it seems she clearly enjoys – for a wide range of reasons. She lives with her beau and his sometimes ‘friend’, Ernest, both of whom seem to have no occupation apart from wasting Blanche’s hard earned wages.
The novel details Blanche’s journey toward self revelation. She comes to realize that she is, in fact, alone. That she has no true friends. Throughout the tale she is so self absorbed that by the time she realizes all of this it is too late and she struggles to alter the impact of her blindness to the suffering of others. The revelation hits her on page 292 – “the tears are spilling out of Blanche’s sockets; her head has turned to hot liquid and she’s moaning like some blinded calf. Crying … for Jenny’s life. For the short, lousy lives of all the children.”
I won’t spoilt the story by revealing much more. I will only say that what has stayed with me from this book is summed up in the following:
“Funny how universal that impulse is, to make your mark, even on water.”