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.