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Frog Music by Emma Donoghue – A Review

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While most authors wouldn’t dare to get down and dirty with the grimier places that history has forgotten, Emma Donoghue not only dives head-first into the mess that is 1876 San Francisco, but also creates something beautiful out of it. This story is set in the midst of one of the hottest summers on record and a horrific outbreak of smallpox, Blanche Beunon hears about the death of her friend Jenny Bonnet who has been shot by an unknown man.

For a burlesque dancer, the squalid underbelly of the city is not a stranger and never too far away. Blanche has to navigate the darker corners and alleyways of a world filled with crime and criminals, one of whom, it transpires, has murdered her friend and is now intent on stopping her from bringing him to justice.

Even from the outset we are plunged into Blanche’s world and forced to see how the other half live. But hers is not a world of the rich elite of modern-day San Francisco; hers is the world of those begging and stealing just to get through the day. Donoghue manages to create sympathetic characters that you feel strongly for. She makes decisions that, in any other setting, would be questionable and even downright wrong, but somehow in Frog Music there seems to be no other way to live than to commit crime and protect yourself with secrets.

The main character, Blanche, is at once a helpless victim, forever on the wrong side of the law but never doing wrong, and our hero, someone we root for the entire time. She is slick and charming in her own world, but soon gets out of her depth. You can feel her losing her way as she sinks deeper into a world of crime that she never even knew about before, and from which she may never return.

Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music is her first America-based historical novel and the author makes full advantage of her colorful if unusual setting, evoking the clawing heat and the oppressive eyes of a city grown suspicious by constant crime. Donoghue creates an incredible atmosphere within the book that simply draws the reader in further and further. The timescale of just three days make everything feel much more intense and creates a feeling of urgency that makes you just want to savor every last detail.

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