The historical novel that offers a surfeit of period detail—books such as Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha—can make us feel very distant from the men and women (however much we may sympathize with them) who dress and sound and live so differently than we do. By the final pages, we may notice that we know more about what they wore and how their houses looked than about who they were. Whereas the psychological novel set in the past that focuses on language and characters—as with Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, Péter Nádas’s Parallel Stories, and Russell Banks’s Cloudsplitter—can give us the sense that we are reading about ourselves or versions of our friends and neighbors, people who, oddly enough, seem to have been born and died in another time and place.
Denis Johnson’s novella Train Dreams provides a perfect example of how a gifted writer can make us feel as if he is writing about a past era—beginning in 1917—from inside the characters who inhabit it. One of the miracles that literature can perform—its ability to persuade us that there is such a thing as human nature, that certain aspects of feeling and belief are constants, fundamentally unchanged by geography and history—is unlikely to occur when we are perpetually being distracted by expository passages that seem to us to emit the dusty aura of the research library as we encounter an accumulation of costumes and customs.
Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music is an unusual case, in that it begins as a rather standard historical novel, eager—even anxious—to barrage us with surface details: the sights, sounds, and smells of the seamier side of San Francisco during a heat wave and a smallpox epidemic in the summer of 1876. In an author’s note, Donoghue tells us that with the exception of five minor figures, all of her characters are based on real people, and that much of what happens in the novel was inspired by incidents described in histories of, and newspaper articles from, that time; in addition, she has made use of ship’s passenger lists and census, birth, and death records. Another series of notes describes the provenance and significance of each of the many songs that are sung by characters in the book.
Near the start of the novel, we watch Blanche Beunon, in her laced gaiters, long skirt, and bustle, making her way along wooden sidewalks past locales that strike us as important only for their ability to convey the atmosphere of the rough-and-tumble coastal city:
The Pony Express Saloon is already advertising September’s grand-prize-gala dogfight. Spotting a yellow smallpox flag nailed over the door of a dress shop, Blanche holds her breath and veers away…. Past the Bella Union Theater, where what sounds like a full house is chanting for the variety show to begin. The Ice Cream…
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