Frog Music, by Emma Donoghue, Picador, RRP£16.99/Little, Brown, RRP$27, 416 pages

The French have largely been written out of American history. There are about 12m Americans of French descent in the US but, as a group, they remain relatively invisible, a fact that lends Emma Donoghue’s new novel an unlikely exoticism.

Set in the heart of San Francisco’s Gallic community at the end of the 1870s, Frog Music presents a smallpox-ridden city in which frontier spirit meets fin-de-siècle European bohemianism; where cowboys rub shoulders with flâneurs in search of mild winters and easy money; and where the French, by virtue of their recent arrival and their uncommon language, may seem to share more with their Chinese neighbours than the Anglo-Irish establishment.

The first wave of French immigration to California began during the gold rush of the 1850s, lasting until legislation put a stop to foreign speculators. Donoghue’s immigrants are not miners but, as one of them says, “masters of the arts of pleasure” in a city that has become a byword for licentiousness.

When she is not stripping to smutty songs at the burlesque Hall of Mirrors, Blanche la Danseuse turns tricks on the side. This portfolio career has made her wealthy enough to support her feckless lover, Arthur, and his sexually ambiguous best friend Ernest, both former circus artists from the old country. While the trio may not split the rent, they share everything else, as Donoghue makes plain in a scene reminiscent of Anaïs Nin at her most filthily exuberant.

Arthur calls this set-up a “happy ménages”, which may or may not be true. What we do know is that it is doomed from the moment the novel’s other main character, Jenny Bonnet, literally crashes into Blanche on a stolen bicycle. A sharp-tongued, gun-wielding oddball who dresses as a man and catches frogs for a living, Jenny is a lightning rod for trouble. Within a month she will be dead. The opening pages flash-forward to her murder, in bed beside Blanche in a shabby rural boarding house. On this hangs the central mystery of the novel.

Donoghue is best known for Room, her heart-rending account of a mother and child held by a kidnapper, which was shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize. With its seething cityscape, Frog Music initially appears to offer the antithesis of the earlier book, an escape into the light, albeit an occasionally foggy and sinister light. But it soon becomes clear that the author has unfinished thematic business.

Blanche, we discover, has a baby called P’tit who at birth is boarded at one of the city’s many “baby farms”. Naively, or self-servingly, Blanche has chosen to believe that the “farm” is a rural idyll. Only Jenny’s awkward questions prompt her finally to visit the place. What she finds is an urban house of horrors, row upon row of malnourished infants left to lie and, in some cases, die in their own excrement.

With Blanche belatedly forced to play mother, the story casts off its slight air of historical pastiche and gathers fresh emotional energy. Donoghue depicts with feeling the new parent’s confusion, anxiety and guilt – not just “Am I doing the right thing?” but “Am I feeling the right thing?”

Abandoning her child may make Blanche, in her own eyes and those of others, an unnatural mother. But, she discovers, P’tit’s innocent gaze also presents an assault on her sense of self. “How do you have the gall to pretend you’re a woman?” Ernest later asks her, a question that cuts to the heart of the book’s nuanced sexual politics. It can’t be easy when the only alternatives are Madonna or whore. Not even Jenny, the supposed true original, manages to escape the expectations of her sex – what Blanche calls at one point “all the rules of womanhood”.

For a book with so many free spirits, Frog Music feels oddly resigned to this state of affairs. Motherhood is sacrifice, it seems to say; personal freedom, in the bohemian sense, a pipe dream. It’s tough but get over it. An afterword reveals how closely Donoghue based her story on a true murder case. It might have been better if she had taken more liberties in places. Excessive respect for the facts lets the book sprawl towards its final revelations. The effect is a rough if vital music, not unlike Blanche’s own repertoire.

Adrian Turpin is director of Wigtown Book Festival

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