I was so excited – I stopped off at a charity shop between Manchester Piccadilly and KRO restaurant where I was meeting bookish friends for lunch. There on the shelf was a pristine uncorrected proof copy of the new Emma Donoghue, Frog Music, not due for release until March 2014 by Picador. I’m not a massive fan – although I enjoyed Room (like almost everyone else I know) and loved the earlier Slammerkin. But I really couldn’t resist – I’d love to know how the book found itself in the charity shop, and whether the original reader enjoyed it – and I’ll share my good fortune by offering my copy as a giveaway.
The book, inspired by true events, is set in San Francisco in 1876, amid stifling heat and an outbreak of smallpox. Blanche Beunon is an exotic dancer at the House of Mirrors, sharing her home with her lover Arthur and his companion Ernest. She owns the apartment house – she has used her income, from dancing and prostitution, to invest in property, and Arthur and Ernest spend liberally everything she has left. Blanche has a child – P’tit – who has been found a “home” by the madam who runs the House of Mirrors. A chance encounter in the street – almost being run over by a penny farthing – brings Jenny Bonnet into her life. Jenny wears men’s clothing – and has been arrested frequently because of it – and earns a living catching frogs and selling them to restaurants. The novel develops into a murder mystery – the death takes place in the opening chapters, and much of the story is told in flashbacks which reveal how Blanche’s fortunes change, and in the present day as she tries to survive, to recover P’tit, and to uncover the murderer.
Did I enjoy it? It’s wonderfully written – Blanche and Jenny are both fascinating characters, and the story is told with a wealth of detail that brings the setting alive in all its smells, tastes and sounds. The heat radiates from the pages, and the fear surrounding the spread of the smallpox epidemic is palpable. There is great wit here too – Jenny has a fantastic repartee, and Blanche herself shows incredible determination to succeed in her quest. The book has an undoubted cinematic quality. I have to say though that it took me an absolute age to read – short bursts really didn’t do it justice, this is a book in which to immerse yourself and soak up the atmosphere. In parts, it’s also quite erotic – Blanche loves sex, and some of the descriptions are quite graphic. But I would really recommend it to anyone who enjoys their historical fiction raw and real, and the search for the murderer certainly keeps you turning the pages.
Emma Donoghue is the youngest of eight children, and attended Catholic convent schools in Dublin, apart from one year in New York at the age of ten. In 1990 she earned a first-class honours BA in English and French from University College Dublin, and in 1997 a PhD (on the concept of friendship between men and women in eighteenth-century English fiction) from the University of Cambridge. Since the age of 23, Donoghue has earned her living as a full-time writer. After years of commuting between England, Ireland, and Canada, in 1998 she settled in London, Ontario, where she lives with her partner and their son and daughter.
I’d like to give away my copy of this book to a UK reader – still pristine, but now with a slightly creased spine. The cover is different from the illustration. To enter, please follow my blog and leave a comment below: I’ll draw a winner at random on Sunday 12th January .