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book review

Donoghue’s previous novel, Room, was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize.DAVE CHIDLEY/The Canadian Press

Forget the pretty, breezy San Francisco of your last vacation. Imagine instead a rolling slog of a frontier town, dusty and tough. A late Victorian harbour of poverty, Sinophobia and violence – where thieves, thugs and charlatans roam, ready to pounce and take all you've got. A place where misbehaving children as young as three are institutionalized in a reformatory. Add to this an unbearable heat wave and a deadly smallpox epidemic – which turns the boomtown into a town of doom. What would you be pushed to do if you were a woman, with limited options, under such circumstances? Would you sell your body? Steal a wounded man's bicycle? Hand off your infant son to someone else to raise?

This is the San Francisco of 1876, brought to grimy life in Emma Donoghue's new novel, Frog Music. The action – and there's a lot of it – takes place mostly in Chinatown, thought at the time by the authorities to be the epicentre of the smallpox outbreak that ultimately killed nearly 500 people. (Statistics do not bear this Chinatown theory out, so this finger-pointing may have been more about racism than science.) The population of the gritty neighbourhood was growing at an alarming rate, its streets crammed with desperation, starvation – and ambition.

Blanche Beunon is the headlining dancer at the House of Mirrors, a Chinatown brothel of note. At 24, she supplements her burlesque earnings with escort work, handing over much of the cash to her lover, Arthur, who in turn gambles it away in the company of his devoted friend Ernest. Back in France, they were all circus stars – Arthur and Ernest had a famous trapeze act; Blanche was a bareback horse rider. A terrible fall ended Arthur's career, and sent the trio packing for the Paris of the West.

If this life doesn't sound great, Blanche hasn't noticed. She is getting along just fine, merci beaucoup, making piles of money, very much in love with Arthur, and enjoying her freedom in the land of liberty. She thinks.

Her blithe bubble begins to burst when she is run down on a bicycle ridden by Jenny Bonnet – a notorious, pants-wearing anomaly who captures frogs for a living (if you can call it that), selling them to French and Chinese restaurants. A couch-surfer who has served jail time for her unorthodox manner of dress, Jenny is a 27-year-old straight-talking firebrand, someone we would now call ballsy. She cycles around town in her strange get-up, excitement and charisma dressed up in a grey jacket and trousers. For Blanche, she's a breath of fresh air in the stifling heat.

And then Jenny is gunned down through a window, at the very moment Blanche in their shared room happens to be bending down, untying her gaiters – an innocent action which saves her life.

The novel is based on an actual crime – the 1876 murder of Jenny (or Jennie/Jeanne/Jeannie) Bonnet (or Bonnett), which caused a sensation, but was never solved conclusively. Using a pair of narratives – one beginning with the shooting, one leading up to it – Donoghue applies latter-day literary sleuthing to build a hypothesis around the unsolved murder – an "educated hunch, which is to say, a fiction," as she explains in her lengthy (and fascinating) afterward. Most of the central characters in the novel are based on actual people.

Jenny Bonnet, in particular, has achieved some contemporary fame, Donoghue explains, lauded all over the Internet as a "proto-trans outlaw: passing as male, and running a thieves' gang of women whom she'd persuaded to give up the sex trade." Donoghue says there is no evidence to substantiate this – as thrilling to contemplate though the legend may be.

Donoghue has dug deep into the records – those that survived the great earthquake and fire of 1906 – to offer "a crazy quilt of fact and fiction," a phrase one of the few made-up characters, a newspaper reporter, uses to describe the articles that wind up in his paper.

What she produces is a page-turner of a literary whodunit that screams film adaptation – but also tackles important themes.

Men do not come off well here. They're users of women; would-be rapists; child abusers and abductors; lascivious, slobbering johns. Kiss them – and then some – all you want, and they're not turning into princes. Cartwright, the reporter, emerges as the rare good guy – a seeker of truth surrounded by nastiness. And in P'tit, Blanche's baby boy, Donoghue seems to suggest hope for the gender.

Women, by the same token, are stuck in a society which, at the far reaches of the new world, promises change, but delivers mostly misery. Their options include prostitution, factory work, child-rearing – their own or others. Girls as young as nine are sold to the brothel – which is run by a woman – their virgin delights a special feature on the first Friday of every month.

The American dream is more a nightmare – the harsh inequality presenting a vile imbalance between the one-per-centers and everyone else. As the brothel's madame puts it, there are "ninety-nine in the gutter for every one in a mansion."

Donoghue – who was born in Dublin and lives in London, Ont. – has written historical novels before – with Slammerkin, Life Mask and The Sealed Letter. But the comparisons to her last novel are inevitable. Room was an international bestseller, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Orange Prize, and winning a number of awards, including the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize. Its follow-up was much anticipated.

At first glance, Frog Music appears its very opposite – a historical novel set under the wide open Californian skies versus a contemporary novel played out initially in the confined space of Room. But the novels in fact share a great deal.

In each case, we have women imprisoned – Ma literally; while Blanche is trapped by her times, by the fact she is a woman, even by her sexual desire, which keeps her need for Arthur intense and pressing. In Ma's case, freedom seems impossible, but she knows it's out there, just over the fence, should she ever be discovered. For Blanche, the freedom under which a woman with her pluck and brains could properly thrive is decades away, unimaginable. Both women go for it anyway.

More to the point, the works share a central motivation – the love of a mother for her child; what Blanche calls "the love that's mixed with piss and can't be separated from it." Maternal love can push a woman to create a cheerful world for her child in their jail of a room. Or push a woman to give up everything she knows and thinks she loves in order to get her child back and create a new life for him, and herself. Once again, Donoghue has given us a heroine to root for – and a little boy for whom there is hope, thanks to an extraordinary mother. And told us an awful lot about women.

"What the hell did she think she was doing, throwing down her gauntlet, when the men still have P'tit?" Blanche thinks in her darkest hour, separated from her son.

"This is why women don't start wars, she thinks with a flash of contempt for her whole sex. It's the blasted babies."

Marsha Lederman is The Globe and Mail's Western Arts correspondent.