Based on a true story about a murder in San Francisco when it was still a new city, Donaghue spins a story involving circus folk, music, measles, baby farms, dancing girls and frog hunting.
Jenny Bonnet (pronounced Bonn-ay) was a teenage tearaway who spent time in a reform school before becoming a trouser-wearing frog hunter in the ponds and swamps around the fledgeling San Francisco, supplying the restaurant trade with that delicacy, frog legs.
When she was 27 she was shot dead in a guesthouse outside the city. No one was ever convicted of the killing.
Using old newspaper articles and court records, Donaghue fleshes out the story of Bonnet’s life and death. Narrated by Blanche Beunon, a French acrobat turned stripper and prostitute, who befriended Jenny shortly before her death, the novel depicts the struggles of immigrants, living hand to mouth in Chinatown.
The details of Bonnet’s life were scarce so this allowed Donaghue, whose last book was the harrowing Room, a lot of scope to write an imaginative, colourful narrative peopled by outrageous characters and a complex tangle of emotions and motives at its centre.
This book is well worth a read, whether historical fiction is your thing or not.