Saturday 16 December 2017

Books: Emma Donoghue reveals hidden fears and desires

Frog Music, Emma Donoghue, Picador, €20.50

BRILLIANT: Emma Donoghue’s new book starts with a murder, but it is much more than just another crime thriller. Photo: Dave Chidley
BRILLIANT: Emma Donoghue’s new book starts with a murder, but it is much more than just another crime thriller. Photo: Dave Chidley

J P O'Malley

IT'S THE stifling hot summer of 1876. And in the shady saloon of the Eight Mile House at San Miguel Station – the most southerly point of San Francisco – a 24-year-old tease by the name of Blanche La Danseuse is faced with a dilemma: her cross-dressing, larger-than-life friend Jenny Bonnet has just been shot dead.

Blanche has an eerie feeling that the killers have mistakenly gunned down the wrong woman. But until she finds out who killed Jenny, or why she was the target of a hit man, Blanche fears she may be clipped too.

All of this action takes place at the very beginning of Frog Music, Emma Donoghue's eighth novel and 12th work of fiction to date. For most of the narrative, Donoghue then works backwards.

Through Blanche, the novel's central character, the reader is able to piece together how and why the murder took place. Technically, this book could fall under the genre of crime fiction, but due to Donoghue's exceptional ability to intersperse dialogue alongside a steady third person voice, we gain an incredible insight into Blanche's inner fears and desires, in a way that we might not be able to if this were just a run-of-the-mill murder mystery novel.

Before the killing happened, Blanche was earning a steady wage as an exotic dancer at the House of Mirrors, the city's most notorious bordello.

The dancer has a voracious sexual appetite, participating in casual orgies, depending on how many glasses of whisky had been consumed. But Blanche has one man she really likes to please: Arthur Deneve, a travelling circus performer she met back in Paris when she was 15.

For the past decade, Blanche, Arthur, and his fellow circus friend and huckster Ernest Girard, have all knocked about in bars and bordellos, gambling dens and whorehouses, renting cheap apartments, earning money where they can through whatever illegal activity pays the best rate. But this hard-drinking, hedonistic, free-loving lifestyle is starting to catch up with all of them.

Arthur and Blanche now have a small baby, born out of wedlock, called P'tit, whom they never really wanted in the first place. He has been given away to various madams and minders, as both parents continue to live a life fuelled with late-night promiscuity, sexual debauchery and alcohol abuse.

To make matters worse, Arthur is at death's door, having caught smallpox, which has engulfed the city in recent months, due to the influx of Chinese immigrants.

At nearly 500 pages, Donoghue's tale of hard-living vagabonds who have fallen on hard times is a lengthy affair. And a more cautious editor, I felt, could have encouraged the Dublin author to make this a slightly slimmer book but, because of the snappy dialogue, which is closer to Hollywood screen writing than literary fiction, the narrative still manages to skip along with a fine sense of urgency, eloquence and panache.

And when Donoghue moves from dialogue back to omniscient storyteller, she takes ownership of her narrative with an effortless ease.

As Blanche searches the dingy back streets of Chinatown for P'tit, the narrator explains how she is counting down the "sweaty hours [trailing] from café to bar, tapping at the doors of opium shops to inquire about a Frenchman with a bad back and a freshly pocked face."

Donoghue spends considerable time writing about female sexuality and desire with a candidness that is admirable, and often ignored in contemporary culture, where sex is mostly viewed from a male perspective.

She focuses especially on guilt that Blanche is made to feel as her body is seen as both a pleasure vessel and reproductive system simultaneously. Dealing with this paradox is a constant battle for Blanche.

Or, put another way, Donoghue explores the strange dichotomy that emerges when women are forced to act out the slavish role as both Madonna and whore at the same.

Frog Music is essentially a novel about friendship, redemption and how circumstances that are beyond our control are often the driving force in the lives we come to experience.

It's a story told through characters, who, most of the time, cannot see beyond their next meal, drink, or sexual conquest.

Room, Donoghue's 2010 million-selling-Booker-nominated novel, is currently being made into a feature film. I anticipate a similar fate for this brilliant new book, which has all the ingredients of a cracking Hollywood movie. Donoghue has already arrived on the world stage of literary fiction. But it seems she is here to stay for quite some time.

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