We owe it to each other to tell stories - Neil Gaiman

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Frog Music - Emma Donoghue

Title: Frog Music

Author: Emma Donoghue

Publisher: Picador

Pages: 403

Source: Received from Pan Macmillan South Africa

The Synopsis

Summer of 1876: San Francisco is in the fierce grip of a record-breaking heat wave and a smallpox epidemic. Through the window of a railroad saloon, a young woman named Jenny Bonnet is shot dead. 

The survivor, her friend Blanche Beunon, is a French burlesque dancer. Over the next three days, she will risk everything to bring Jenny's murderer to justice - if he does not track her down first. The story Blanche struggles to piece together is one of free-love bohemians, desperate paupers, and arrogant millionaires, of jealous men, icy women, and damaged children. It's the secret life of Jenny herself, a notorious character who breaks the law every morning by getting dressed: a charmer as slippery as the frogs she hunts. 

In thrilling, cinematic style, FROG MUSIC digs up a long-forgotten, never-solved crime. Full of songs that migrated across the world, Emma Donoghue's lyrical tale of love and bloodshed among lowlifes captures the pulse of a boomtown like no otherGOODREADS

The Review

For a long time, I have been mulling over Frog Music.  I want to be truthful in my critique of this book which managed to leave me feeling the same way I did after reading Wuthering Heights.

If you do not recall my reaction to Wuthering Heights, that is fine, you can go to my review or you can get the gist of it below.

This has been a difficult book for me to dissect. Whilst I am rather fond of stories about real people, the people in Frog Music got no love from me. Much like with Wuthering Heights, I felt compelled to see the entire course of events; but I found the characters rather despicable. The story left me feeling rather bereft, and abused.

I will admit, I found Jenny and Blanche to be interesting - almost Oliver Twist-like characters who appear to be plagued by tragedy. Jenny intrigued me the most - she certainly appeared to have been a feminist ahead of her time. She was actually the one that I most enjoyed, it is just a pity that she remained an enigma throughout the story.

Frog Music is set in an interesting, yet grotesque period of time. The opportunities of a new world are made ugly by the repugnant reality of the exploitative nature of man as well as the great fear we all have of the other. This is not only echoed in the story of San Francisco, but also in the fleeting relationship between Jenny Bonnet and her new found French friends - Blanche, Arthur and Ernest.

Of all the characters in Frog Music, I found Arthur and Ernest to be the most vile. Their shameless exploitation of Blanche to support their lavish lifestyles - which sadly is something that we are seeing more and more of in the 21st century. The more things change, the more they stay the same, but I digress.

Since Frog Music is based on actual events, my disliking the story cannot be attributed to the author. Frog Music is not a likeable story - it is a slice of history, a slice of life without a sugar coating. It is like Angela's Ashes - an ugly reality. My critique is thus not so much of the story, as of the nature of the people - which is to say that it is a critique of the nature of man - Emma Donoghue has done a fantastic job of describing it so perfectly.

One thing that vexed me throughout my reading of Frog Music was the lack of footnotes. Whilst I appreciate the way that French words and phrases were sprinkled throughout Frog Music, I hated that I had to page to the back of the book and look for the meaning amongst a host of other French terms defined. It detracted from the reading experience for me. I feel it would have been so much better had footnotes been used.

What I most enjoyed about Frog Music, was figuring out how the title of this book ties in with the story. It is actually quite clever, but I shan't tell you here, in case you are like me and enjoy solving things like that. I thought it was savvy of Donoghue to switch between past and present, giving you two glimpses which makes the reader all the more curious about the mystery at hand. I also enjoyed, the forgotten art of story telling in songs - something that is now mostly relegated to nursery rhymes - in a way that somehow captures something that we have largely lost.

Frog Music is not a book for the fainthearted, nor for sensitive readers, as it can at times be rather graphic and savage. For other perspectives on Frog Music, please see this review from the New Yorker or this one from the Washington Post.


  1. How fascinating. I too have just finished reading this, also after putting it off for a long time. Great review. I think you have it spot on. I also found the men completely vile, and although I suspect that was really how things were, would have liked there to be one redeeming quality somewhere. Also only identified/sympathized with Jenny, none of the others.

    I now have to come up with a better reason than "No, you just cannot" for my 16 year old daughter who really wants to read this....

  2. I think you should tell your daughter that she may be scarred for life after reading this one. It is so much more than the synopsis on the back cover leads one to believe. You have planted a seed for a new post... Maybe tell her a bit about it and then let her decide, just warn her to proceed with caution on this one.

  3. Great review, Terri. I have had similar feelings about this book, it's not an easy book to read, especially not for sensitive readers. Arthur and Ernst are definitely the most vile characters in this book.

    I also agree with you on the footnotes and French phrases thrown in, it distracted me, having to page back and forth between glossary and story. Imagine having to read this on Kindle.


What did you think? I would love to read your comments.