Emma Donoghue has broken out of her “Room.” Four years after that bestselling story of a mother and child imprisoned in a garden shed, she’s back with a novel ravenous for space, for people, for sounds — for all the life that 5-year-old Jack never had. The millions of readers who know Donoghue only from the harrowing tale of that little boy will discover in “Frog Music” just how expansive and boisterous this Irish Canadian author can be.

Frog Music” — her first historical novel set in America — takes us to San Francisco in the broiling summer of 1876. The shaky city is aflame with crime, disease and racial violence, fueled by grotesque extremes of wealth and poverty. Donoghue has the whole rambunctious city swarming through this book. Teeming immigrants are about to riot. Health officials have only tenuous control over a raging smallpox epidemic. The legal age for prostitution is 10, but that’s better than what goes on in the “schools” for delinquent children or on the flourishing baby market. This is Victorian London with earthquakes and good Chinese food.

Her story is based on the real-life shooting of a cocky cross-dresser who supported herself by supplying restaurants with frog legs. Donoghue notes that a journalist saw this description of the novel on Wikipedia and alerted her that someone must be playing a prank. But no. Using contemporaneous newspaper articles about Jenny Bonnet, Donoghue has created a full-throated murder mystery, spiced with song and forbidden love.

While “Room” held us with the precision of its cloistered voice, “Frog Music” entrances us with Blanche Beunon, a spirited prostitute whose life is about to be completely upended. Recently arrived from France, she’s so successful in the flesh trade that she’s already bought her own apartment building. By dancing and whoring, she brings in enough to support her dandy lover and his equally dissipated friend, both ex-acrobats and now chronic gamblers.

They might have gone on abusing Blanche’s body and generosity indefinitely, but in the opening pages, she’s run over by Jenny Bonnet riding a gigantic bicycle. “Blanche should just walk away, right now, from this gun-packing jester who’s caused her damage,” Donoghue writes, but something about the ridiculous, iconoclastic young woman delights her. “The fact is, Blanche hasn’t had so much fun with a stranger since — well, since leaving France.”

“Frog Music” by Emma Donoghue. (Little, Brown)

Once Donoghue lights the fuse of this tightly compressed friendship, neither the homeless cross-dresser nor the tireless burlesque dancer realizes just how explosively their lives are about to change. As soon as Jenny starts asking impertinent questions, Blanche’s maison joyeuse shatters. Suddenly, her charming lover looks like a leech, and the arrangements he’s made to have their baby taken care of on a bucolic farm in the country sound deeply suspicious. But she can’t imagine what daggers are pointed at her new, pants-wearing girlfriend.

“Frog Music” keeps us captivated because Donoghue has filled the foreground and background of this wild tale with irresistibly vivid characters. The woman who owns the dance hall where Blanche performs exchanges flesh for gold as efficiently as a modern day trader. Blanche’s finely dressed lover and his inseparable friend vacillate between wheedling and menacing, carousing about town before returning home drunk to exploit their patroness together. (Yes, crossdressing isn’t the only taboo stripped bare in these pages.)

And then, of course, there are the two fantastic women at the center of this bloody story: You can feel Donoghue’s delight with 27-year-old Jenny, the gender-bending imp. She’s quick with a joke or a jab. A friend to the downtrodden, she’s a fearless provocateur who plays with her own transgressive identity for ironic effect. Best of all, she’s got a song for every occasion. Some 30 different lyrics appear in the novel — all charmingly discussed in an appendix. Without ever defining herself as a lesbian, Jenny is clearly a sexual trespasser in the eyes of a culture that, tragically, is more alarmed by crossdressing than by child abuse or even murder. (One newspaper headline screams: “Woman’s Mania for Wearing Male Attire Ends in Death.”)

Even more fascinating, though, is Blanche, who races through this propulsive tale along two different time tracks. It’s a complex but gracefully handled structure that allows us to experience her month-long friendship with Jenny and the gory panic of Jenny’s murder simultaneously. In Blanche, Donoghue gives full range to a woman who has made more sacrifices than she realizes to attain success. Over the course of the novel, encouraged by needling jokes from her new friend, Blanche comes to a frightening understanding of the people she once trusted and an unsettling new perception of herself as a woman — and as a mother.

Of course, these feminist issues have always been prominent in Donoghue’s fiction (and in her nonfiction — she’s an illuminating literary critic with a PhD in English from Cambridge University). Fans will recall that the superhuman mom in “Room” was willing to do anything to save her child, but Blanche is a more nuanced character. This isn’t a whore with a heart of gold so much as a woman with a heart of many alloys. She often hates being a mother and feels buffeted by crosscurrents of resentment toward her baby and love for him. “She can’t go out,” Donoghue writes, “can’t have a bath, can’t do anything but sit here staring at the saddest, ugliest baby in the world.” How many parents have fumed with that secret frustration? “Much too late to wish this small life undone. And yet she does wish it, every time her eyes approach him.”

Donoghue portrays Blanche’s sexuality as similarly conflicted. She knows “the rhythmic friction between desire and disgust,” and she’s willing to admit to herself that she sometimes feels aroused by being “used, abased, crushed into something else.” But can she still detect the difference between pleasure and exploitation, between what she wants and what others want from her? Here are many shades of grey from a writer who knows how to use all of them.

Donoghue explores these intensely personal matters even as the plot runs along like a loose cart down Filbert Street. Blanche must not only solve Jenny’s murder before the killers come back for her; she must also find her sick baby before the little creature is snuffed out — all while trying to hang on to her evaporating livelihood. “It sounds like a third-rate melodrama,” Blanche admits to herself, but storytelling that is this charismatic raises melodrama to first-rate historical fiction.

Charles is the deputy editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.

On April 5, Emma Donoghue will be at Politics & Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington. Call 202-364-1919.


By Emma Donoghue

Little, Brown. 405 pp. $27