UEA welcomed Emma Donoghue to the platform for the penultimate week of the Spring Literary Festival. Emma opened the evening with a lively reading of her most recent novel Frog Music. ‘I’m going to need you to work with me people’, she began.
Photo: National Post
In her view, she was breaking the rules by introducing more than two speakers during her short reading from the text. However, it proved to be a rule worth breaking.
Frog Music begins under unusual and intriguing circumstances. A young woman, Jenny Bonnet (intrepid frog-catcher for the restaurant trade and unabashed cross-dresser) is shot dead in front of her friend, Blanche Beunon. The murderer is nowhere to be found on the scene, and a vision of chaos ensues.
The reading picked up from the aftermath of Jenny’s death. Naturally, this scene is one of pandemonium, restrained only by the collected thoughts of Blanche. It is obvious why Donoghue defies the two-speaker convention in this case; by doing so, she captures the aftermath in its perfect image of chaos.
What makes this reading all the more intriguing is that the story is based on an unresolved murder which actually took place in 1876, in the city of San Francisco. For Donoghue, the very appeal of writing on an unsolved case in history gives her so much scope for developing her fiction. ‘Gaps in historical records are wonderful’ she says. It is with these gaps that one is able to explore the creative power of the imagination.
Donoghue has been known to play with various genres. As well as exploring the capacity of the novel, she has also experimented with short stories, literary history, radio plays, and is even currently developing a screenplay for her best-selling novel Room. Perhaps this is what motivated her to write on such a forgotten case in history: the desire to play with the overlapping realms of fact and fiction.
She has a striking ability to bring history alive by blending together the factual with literary motifs, and highly developed characters. Perhaps in some way, Donoghue portrays a more truthful account than one we would read in a history textbook. She accepts the limitations to our ability to uncover the past, and instead, offers a creative zone within which one can resuscitate history, not as a specimen to dissect objectively, but as a human past, made up of real personalities; a past we should perhaps relate to.