"People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them," wrote James Baldwin in "Notes of a Native Son." Much of novelist Emma Donoghue's literary career has involved the liberation of historical figures, often women, from the constraints of the recorded past to the relative freedom of fiction, as in her novels "Slammerkin," "The Sealed Letter" and "Life Mask," all set in the 18th or 19th century. Her most recent work, the multiple-award-winning international bestseller "Room," took a more contemporary approach, loosely inspired by the experiences of women recently held captive by abusive men.
In her new novel, "Frog Music," Donoghue returns to the more distant past to take on an unsolved San Francisco murder: that of young Jenny Bonnet, shot by an unknown killer lurking outside her railway hotel room. All but a few supporting characters are based on real people. The sensationalist events are summed up in a brief account from the Sept. 16, 1876, Daily Alta California:
"The victim was ... the daughter of a French actor formerly engaged at a theater in this city. Her life seems to have been prominently checkered with evil … the deceased achieved a rather nonsensical notoriety in this city by persistently appearing in men's apparel, which defied numerous judgments of the Police Court to eradicate. Ostensibly, this woman was a frog-fisher and dressed as a man on account of following that occupation …"
Donoghue's protagonist is Blanche Beunon, the other woman in the hotel room when Jenny is murdered; "Blanche la Danseuse … the famous dancer," as Jenny describes her with a grin.
A few years younger than Jenny, Donoghue's Blanche was an equestrienne with the Cirque d'Hiver. Since she immigrated to the U.S. with her lover Arthur, a former trapeze artist, Blanche has become the star attraction at a brothel. Her act, known as the Lively Flea, is successful enough that Blanche owns her own five-story building in Chinatown, where she's landlord to recent immigrants like herself. She also earns enough to support Arthur and their louche friend Ernest, whose sexual interest extends to both Arthur and Blanche.
Refreshingly (if perhaps a tad unrealistically) unhampered by any self-consciousness or guilt about her profession, Blanche enjoys her work, most of the time. She takes pride in maintaining her mènage à trois — she keeps herself and Arthur in fashionable clothes, employs a Swedish maid and owns an icebox, a luxury during the sweltering summer in which "Frog Music" is set, when a smallpox epidemic ravages the city.
Blanche meets Jenny Bonnet one stifling August night when Jenny crashes into her on a bicycle, an introduction that itself might have come from a risqué burlesque revue: "The lanky daredevil jumps up, rubbing one elbow, as lively as a cricket. 'Ça va, Mademoiselle?' French much the same as Blanche's own; the voice not a man's, not a boy's even. A girl, for all the gray jacket, vest, pants, the jet hair hacked above the sunburned jaw line. One of these eccentrics on which the City prides itself …"
Jenny is a frog catcher who sells her prey to local restaurants. She's unconventional in matters other than dress too: She packs a Colt in her trouser leg, and while she and Blanche don't immediately hop into bed, there's not much doubt they'll end up there. We know from the opening pages that Jenny will die there. Was she shot by Arthur, or Ernest, or another of Blanche's jealous lovers? Or was Jenny killed because of her transgressive clothing and behavior?
The narrative leapfrogs (sorry) back and forth in chronology — before, after and during the murder — a strategy perhaps intended to heighten tension but which slows the action while causing unnecessary confusion. Donoghue is less interested in exploring matters of sexual identity or 19th century feminism than she is in following the template of an amateur detective novel, as Blanche attempts to track down her friend's killer. In an author's note, Donoghue admits that "Frog Music" is her first historical novel set in the United States as well as her first mystery, and she seems not to have quite gotten the register of her California setting and idiom. The dialogue is often clunkily long-winded, in the style of last-century TV westerns.
"A sinking ship brought you here, too," murmurs Madame, "but you managed to walk away from that promptly. Strange how girls of other nationalities don't seem to need these hangers-on. If they have pimps, the fellows take a managerial role, at least, whereas these French maqués are the feeblest parasites."
Where Donoghue excels is in her descriptions of 19th century squalor: street children licking a block of ice that's fallen from a cart; smallpox pustules like "Dimpled red pearls … No, they're a swarm of bloated ants …" Most horrific is the scene where Blanche tracks down her baby, P'tit Arthur, whom she and her lover "nursed out" when he was just a few weeks old. Months later, in a fit of conscience, Blanche finds P'tit at the baby farm run by the notorious Doctress Amelia Hoffman (a real-life villainess who never did jail time for her crimes).
"Weak goatish cries go up. Two small ones in one crib, three in the next … Eyes closed, or blinking wetly, or open and vacant. All, big or small, strangely inanimate: with a sensation like a blow to her chest, Blanche finally recognizes the tribe her son belongs to."
The true revelation of "Frog Music" is not the identity of Jenny Bonnet's murderer but the gradual and more surprising disclosure of Blanche's growing love for the baby she abandoned. "Happiness as unpindownable as a louse," as Blanche puts it at the end of Donoghue's poignant novel, "you feel the tickle of its passage but your fingers close on nothing."
Hand's most recent book is the collection "Errantry: Strange Stories."
Little, Brown: 403 pp, $27