Thrills, spills in a car­ni­val tale

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

THE most in­ter­est­ing char­ac­ter in Emma Donoghue’s Frog Mu­sic is shot dead in the open­ing pages, her blood­ied coun­te­nance de­scribed as “a car­ni­val ver­sion of a fa­mil­iar face”. One can un­der­stand how the un­solved 1870s case of a cross-dress­ing fe­male killed in a room in the pres­ence of her com­pan­ion, a French bur­lesque dancer, might tempt a writer’s in­ter­est. Cer­tainly one as at­tracted to his­tor­i­cal tales as Donoghue.

The Ir­ish writer’s works have tended to cen­tre on in­tri­cate em­bel­lish­ments of real-life sto­ries and crimes, with a par­tic­u­lar fo­cus on strong women caught in the stric­tures of their era. Of her seven pre­vi­ous nov­els, three have been his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, Donoghue de­scrib­ing Slam­merkin (2000), Life Mask (2004) and The Sealed Let­ter (2008) as a tril­ogy of in­ves­ti­ga­tions of the Bri­tish class sys­tem.

Yet it was her pre­vi­ous novel, the Man Booker Prize short-listed Room (2010) — a con­tem­po­rary crime story — that be­came an in­ter­na­tional best­seller, cen­tring as it did on a high-pro­file atroc­ity: the Josef Fritzl case.

Nar­rated from the per­spec­tive of a young child im­pris­oned since birth in a room with his abused mother, what Room of­fered was the rather mor­bid thrill of imag­i­na­tively ex­plor­ing a con­scious­ness dam­aged by the ac­tions of a per­verted in­di­vid­ual, in a story based closely on one that had dom­i­nated re­cent head­lines.

From this, then, to her new­est ti­tle Frog Mu­sic, which sim­i­larly is based on a true crime, yet one so old and ob­scure that it lacks any of the per­verse fris­son promised by Room. Donoghue elu­ci­dates the bare bones of “what was gen­er­ally known as the San Miguel Mys­tery” in an af­ter­word.

Jenny Bon­net, a roustabout, a bi­cy­cle-rid­ing young woman who dresses in men’s at­tire — a predilec­tion for which she has been be­fore court sev­eral times — is shot while stay­ing in a room at San Miguel Sta­tion on the out­skirts of San Fran­cisco. Her com­pan­ion, Blanche Be­unon, is with her in the room, but is un­harmed.

From this slim his­tor­i­cal case Donoghue weaves her tale. That Jenny’s mur­der oc­curs in the open­ing pages is prob­lem­atic. Donoghue jumps back and forth in time so fre­quently that much of the novel is a re­hash­ing in present tense of events that have al­ready been out­lined, with lit­tle change from the ear­lier sum­ma­tion.

The fo­cus of the work be­comes the plight of Blanche, who lives with her dan­di­fied lover Arthur and his friend Ernest, all three for­mer ac­ro­bats at the Cirque d’Hiver in Paris (this menage, and the oc­ca­sional client Blanche ser­vices af­ter her leg shows at the House of Mir­rors, pro­vide oc­ca­sion for the jar­ringly ex­plicit sex scenes at odds with the over­all tone of the novel). Her chance en­counter with Jenny leads to their fast friend­ship — the ti­tle comes from the co­in­ci­dence of their na­tion­al­i­ties and Jenny’s oc­cu­pa­tion as a frog catcher — and a shat­ter­ing of the com­fort­able, ac­qui­esc­ing life Blanche has led.

Though Frog Mu­sic is writ­ten in the third per­son, Donoghue’s ren­der­ing of Blanche’s in­ter­nal di­a­logue be­comes in­ter­minable. The novel is mired in end­less hand-wring­ing, en­tire pages made up of stream of con­scious­ness ques­tions we al­ready know the an­swer to. Any in­trigue in the mur­der mys­tery is re­moved, as Blanche is so cer­tain that Arthur is the cul­prit, one be­gins to sus­pect she doth protest too much. Donoghue seems so ea­ger to in­ject char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion and pe­riod de­tail into the bare his­tor­i­cal facts that she over­stuffs this work un­til it is burst­ing. The mu­si­cal lyrics — in­serted to add a jux­ta­pos­ing light­ness to bleak events — are un­nec­es­sary in an al­ready over­long book. Sim­i­larly, the glos­sary of French phrases ap­pear su­per­flu­ous given most are ex­plained in the text.

What Donoghue does do skil­fully is con­jure 1870s San Fran­cisco in all its hellish, dis­easerid­den, claus­tro­pho­bic mad­ness. The emerg­ing me­trop­o­lis was wrecked in 1876 by the twin plagues of a heat­wave and a small­pox epi­demic, which cloak the city in a sti­fling blan­ket of sus­pi­cion and ris­ing tem­pers.

The whole novel, like San Fran­cisco it­self, is a kind of dark car­ni­val, “a roulette wheel that spins its hu­man chips at ran­dom”. Houses and businesses in­fected by small­pox were forced to hang yel­low flags above their doors, be­com­ing so wide­spread that the city seemed scat­tered with mor­bid dec­o­ra­tions, “yel­low flags hang like bunting for some can­celled New Year”.

In­deed, much of Frog Mu­sic has the feel of a car­ni­val, all merry songs and cheap thrills in over­crowded laneways. But like a day at the car­ni­val that has gone on rather long, even­tu­ally the move­ment be­comes jar­ring, the sweet smells be­come sickly, and the end­less play­ing of gaudy mu­sic — frog or other­wise — be­gins to grate. Bethanie Blan­chard is a Mel­bourne writer and critic.

Au­thor Emma Donoghue

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