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Originally published Sunday, April 6, 2014 at 6:16 AM

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‘Frog Music’: a seething summer in 1876 San Francisco

In Emma Donoghue’s new novel “Frog Music,” San Francisco in the summer of 1876 serves as the seething, seedy setting for the story of a frog-catching cross-dresser’s murder. Donoghue reads Saturday, April 12, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Emma Donoghue

The author of “Frog Music” will appear at 7 p.m. Saturday at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave. Free (206-624-6600;

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“Frog Music”

by Emma Donoghue

Little, Brown, 405 pp., $27

San Francisco, summer of 1876 — “a roulette wheel that spins its human chips at random,” ponders Blanche, a burlesque dancer and French immigrant who’s the central voice of Emma Donoghue’s latest novel, “Frog Music.” People there called it The City, as if there were no other; “the foreignest city in America,” Blanche had heard.

That nearly unbearable September tested the mettle of all who had come there: a heat wave that caused horses to collapse dead in the streets mid-hill, a smallpox epidemic creating the kind of fear you could smell in the hot air. And a murder, described in the opening pages: Jenny Bonnet, a frog-catcher by trade and scofflaw by nature (her crime: dressing in men’s clothing), is shot through the window of a seedy saloon just outside of town. Blanche, her friend, ducks at precisely the right moment — was the bullet meant for her? Or Jenny? And why?

Donoghue’s previous novel, the acclaimed, disturbing best-seller “Room,” mostly took place within the contemporary confines of four walls, where a woman and her small son were held captive. Now the novelist’s pendulum has swung far in the other direction: “Frog Music,” taking place a continent away and nearly a century and a half earlier, throbs with the bustle and vastness and odors of early San Francisco, a place that is, as Jenny says, “growing like blazes, doubling every decade.” (“Sounds like some ugly fungus,” retorts Blanche.)

And yet at its center, again, is a mother and her son — Blanche has a child, an infant named for his shady father but known as P’tit — and some of the story’s details are every bit as upsetting. We see, through Blanche’s horrified eyes, one of the city’s hellish “baby farms” (filthy, disease-ridden warehouses for unwanted children, whose indifferent parents paid a pittance for their keep), and are repeatedly reminded of the powerlessness with which these two very different women led their lives.

Like “Room,” though, Donoghue here displays an uncanny knack for telling an off-putting story in such a way that you can’t stop reading it, that you fall a little bit in love with the characters and the moment in time she’s creating. Blanche, though at times weak-minded and foolish, emerges with a determination and steadfastness that makes her irresistible; the careless, breezy Jenny is less vivid, but that’s because Blanche can’t quite figure her out. And Donoghue’s structure, in which two simultaneous timelines (before the murder and after it) bear down on each other like the heat of the sun, makes the book both a literary character study and a page-turning thriller.

“Frog Music” grew from a real story of a not-quite-solved murder, with nearly every character in it derived from newspaper articles and municipal records dug up by Donoghue during her research. (It’s also charmingly peppered with authentic songs from the time, meticulously cataloged in an afterward.) Her solution to the murder is, we’re told in an author’s note, “an educated hunch, which is to say, a fiction.” Unlike a hunch, though, fiction can — and, here, does — sing.

Moira Macdonald is the movie critic for The Seattle Times.

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