The Whalebone Theatre- Joanna Quinn (Penguin 2022)

Dorset author Joanna Quinn has produced a very strong debut here.  Her depiction of the Seagrave family between 1919 and 1945 is full of wonderful moments.  The manor house at Chilcombe, a village which actually exists 10 miles from Dorchester (last estimated population in 2013 was 10!) is lovingly created and provides the central focus although the action splinters to other locations during the war years this house is the lifeblood for this novel.

A great favourite of mine is Dodie Smith’s “I Capture The Castle” (1949) and I am regularly tempted by works which aim to get the feel of that novel, with its memorable characters, excellent set-pieces and its superb balance of being heart-warming, funny and poignant within a family setting.  Get this balance slightly off and it shows and I tend to end up not really responding positively but Joanna Quinn, whether this is an explicit aim or not, gets the feel of this type of novel beautifully and the first half was a thing of sheer of joy which I loved reading.  At the mid-way point I thought I’d got a strong contender for my Book of The Year.  From the outbreak of war, when the characters inevitably leave to play their part, I felt it slipped into more standard fare, which I still very much enjoyed but for me the real magic of the first half was not sustained.

Playing a part is an important theme of this novel.  Fish out of water Christabel is a toddler when her father arrives at Chilcombe with a new wife and the family dynamics further change in time leaving Christabel very much an outsider.  Her life changes when the corpse of an errant whale washes up on the beach.  With younger siblings and others originally encountered on the beach where the whale lies dead Christabel develops a theatre on Seagrave land using the whale bones in its construction.  The theatre where friends and family all have a part to play brings Christabel into the fold.  This “Swish Of The Curtain” aspect gives this novel  a vitality and the notion of the theatre simmers away in Christabel’s heart when war takes her far away from Chilcombe.

The war sees these memorable characters involved at home and overseas- some slip away at this point and have little part to play in future proceedings but others develop a stronger focus. Looking at my review of “I Capture The Castle” I also say that it is a book of two halves, with the first half more captivating for me than the second.  I’d actually forgotten about that when I read “The Whalebone Theatre” and even when I began writing this review but it’s interesting (for me anyway) that I felt the same way about a book I just can’t help comparing this to.

It is a splendid debut and this was enriched for me by the Dorset location, as a newcomer to the County myself I loved the references to places I have so recently visited and the mentions of my new home town in an earlier part of its history.  This book will charm and thrill many readers and could be a very pleasing commercial as well as critical success.

The Whalebone Theatre is published in the UK by Penguin on June 9th. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

I Capture The Castle – Dodie Smith (1949) – Chick- Lit from a male point of view review

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Once again, not explicitly chick-lit but for any fans of that genre this book is an absolute treat. It has simmered along for the last few years as a bit of a word of mouth classic. It is a book which readers recommend to the next generation, mothers recommend it to daughters. (I would like to think that fathers recommend it to sons!) It captivates whole families. It is time to recognise this book for what it is – one of the finest novels of the Twentieth Century.

I have only discovered it in recent years. Of course I knew who Dodie Smith was, writer of my much-loved copy of “101 Dalmatians”. I would spend hours looking at the classic pink cover of the Puffin edition, retelling the story from the film to myself over and over and yearning to be old enough to be able to tackle the book.    Once I deemed myself able to cope with the “difficult words” found a whole new level of enjoyment from what I got from Disney. img007

I didn’t know that Smith had a writing life beyond children’s books really until 2003 when the BBC produced a much publicised Big Read Top 100 books.  This was a list voted for by the public and there at number 82 was this book that I had never heard of. I had to seek it out and it was a revelation. It thoroughly deserved its Top 100 status. Since then, its reputation has continued to grow steadily. Also in 2003 a film version was released. It was very enjoyable but didn’t push the book into the British Classic status that I thought might be forthcoming from a film release.

The word for this book is “captivating”, especially the first half of the novel which is just a sheer joy. It is the tale of the Mortmain family, down on its uppers, making ends meet living in a castle which they can’t afford to upkeep. Father has been seduced by the romanticism of life in a castle without considering the practicalities and the family are paying the price. It is all seen through the eyes of seventeen year old Cassandra, one of the most delightful characters in fiction. There are some excellent set pieces (Cassandra being caught in the bath by American visitors and a trip to London to collect their dead aunt’s clothes are sections that stay with me). It’s heart-warming, funny and poignant and just so enjoyable.

I will admit that it is perhaps a novel of two halves and the standard, for me, drops in the second half once sister Rose has moved to London and Cassandra is left to her own devices, as there are less characters for the sheer exuberance of youth to bounce off. I cannot imagine that Dodie Smith ever wrote to this standard again, although I recently purchased one of her other books so (in time) I will get round to finding out but if you like any of the authors who write anything from chick-lit to female-oriented literary fiction, to Jane Austen, to male writers who focus on the dynamics between characters such as Armistead Maupin or Patrick Gale then this book should be on your reading list this summer.    fivestars

I Capture The Castle is published by Virago. It is a book which has had many front covers over the years in many editions. I very much like the cover I’ve chosen at the top of the page (different from the copy I read) but I’ll just sneak in one other version which may be best forgotten…………..

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