Emma Donoghue's latest novel has many facets, all of them fascinating. "Frog Music" is a detailed slice of historical drama, set in the festering boomtown of San Francisco in 1876. Like her hair-raising best-seller "Room," it incorporates the elements of a thriller; in fact, there's enough puzzle here to qualify as a full-blooded mystery. Best of all, there's Donoghue's intricate examination of women in impossible circumstances, bound to repugnant men for survival but never broken by them.
"Frog Music" is based on a true story about the unsolved murder of a cross-dressing frog catcher named Jeanne Bonnet, here called Jenny. In the book as in life, Jenny is shot through the window of a boarding house in the novel's opening pages, in the company of Blanche Beunon, a burlesque dancer and prostitute.
Donoghue takes this event and puts her formidable, eloquent mark on it. In her version, Blanche's survival seems random chance: She's only spared because she bent down to untangle her gaiters. She has known Jenny for only a few weeks when she dies -- they met when Jenny ran her down on a bicycle -- and their friendship has hit a difficult spot.
Still, Blanche grieves, and her sorrow gives way to outrage. She spends the next several days trying to track down Jenny's killer, sure she was the intended victim. Her main suspects are her estranged, dandified lover Arthur and his sidekick Ernest, freeloaders and former acrobats who gamble away Blanche's earnings. Furious at her refusal to work so she can care for her infant son, they spirit the child away, leaving a frantic Blanche to search for him, too.
Blanche acts as a guide through the seamy, steamy city by the bay, which is undergoing a brutal, uncharacteristic heat wave and a massive smallpox outbreak. Both plagues have set the residents on edge, as have long-simmering tensions against Chinese workers filling the city's tenements.
Cultural disgust is universal, though, in this overheated melting pot. Blanche, a French immigrant, is disgusted by a family of Irish saloonkeepers. "You Frog whore, that's what Ellen would have liked to call Blanche, no doubt, except that the woman probably couldn't pronounce such a word because the Irish are the prudes of Europe."
Donoghue revisits an older and in some ways more horrifying version of the shed where a small boy grows up captive in "Room," exposing the shocking practice of baby farming, in which unsavory individuals are paid to take in unwanted infants -- and then treacherously neglect them. "How many will she find stacked in each crib, alive in name only, sucking on what -- milk watered down to cloudy water? Glazed-eyed and crone-faced, tiny bones showing through translucent skin?"
But Blanche learns rescuing her child from this hell is no easier than leaving him to wither and die. Donoghue isn't blind to the demands of motherhood, and some of the book's best sequences involve the impatient, inexperienced Blanche, used to catering to the dark tastes of men, trying to decipher the whims of a baby.
Colorful French slang and period songs -- both of which have their own glossaries in the book -- flow through the novel lyrically, making the era as vital as the plot. Donoghue is acrobatic with her storytelling and language and paints the stinking city vividly as "a roulette wheel that spins its human chips at random." Gradually, a second question emerges. The mystery isn't merely about who shot Jenny; there's also the question of the person Blanche will become. She has a choice, one that will keep you riveted as you make your way through this vibrant and remarkable novel.
"Frog Music" by Emma Donoghue; Little, Brown ($27)