By PAUL GESSELL
Frog Music by Emma Donoghue was one of the most eagerly anticipated books this spring in large part because the Irish-Canadian author’s last novel, Room, was such an international sensation.
Published in 2010, Room is the story of a woman and her five-year-old son Jack imprisoned by a psychopath in one small underground room. Jack was born in that room and knows no other world. Creating a believable character whose life experiences are so limited is the kind of task a diabolical creative writing instructor might give to a group of students. Well, Donoghue would have definitely received an A+ for her work.
Donoghue will be a guest of the Ottawa International Writers Festival April 28 to promote her newly released novel Frog Music, a murder mystery set in San Francisco in 1876.
Don’t expect Frog Music to top Room, although the new novel has some admirable qualities. The sights and sounds of 19th century San Francisco are wonderfully recreated and decidedly decadent. The characters are all eccentrics based on real people. Yet, none of the characters, as recreated by Donoghue, are as believable as five-year-old Jack in Room. And none of the characters, even a one-year-old baby tossed about like a hot potato, are the least bit lovable.
The story revolves around Blanche Beunon, an exotic dancer and prostitute who enjoys sex frequently and roughly. The one-year-old baby is hers; she has farmed out the boy to cruel strangers who starve the child. Blanche’s live-in boyfriend, Arthur, abuses her in every way and actually prefers the company of his male friend Ernest. On top of that Blanche is slovenly, careless with money, not very bright, and terribly narcissistic. Her beauty and sexual acrobatics are her only positive attributes. She is not much of a heroine.
There are many good books about unsavoury characters – one can think of various psychopaths, dictators, and mass murderers you know you are supposed to hate. But I can’t help thinking that Donoghue wants us to like Blanche despite her many flaws. Yet, the more I read of Frog Music, the less I really cared what happened to Blanche. She simply came across as a badly constructed, unlikeable, cardboard figure.
The book opens with a murder. Blanche and her cross-dressing friend Jenny are holed up in a small hotel outside San Francisco. Suddenly, a bullet whizzes through the window of their bedroom. Jenny is killed. The rest of the book explains how this odd couple came to be in this hotel room and who actually shot Jenny.
Donoghue does not buy into the San Francisco police theory of 1876 as to who was the actual murderer. So, she puts the fateful gun into the hands of another person. Be prepared for a big surprise. A not very credible surprise.
The story is told through numerous flashbacks awkwardly and irritatingly plunked in the middle of real-time events. It is difficult at times to remember which is which. After awhile, it becomes difficult to care.
Emma Donoghue will be interviewed onstage at Knox Presbyterian Church on April 28.