The Whalebone Theatre, by Joanna Quinn. Review.

An upper-class family bohemian fantasy or a snapshot of early 20th century live encompassing two world wars and their effect on a landed Dorset family? Take your pick but Joanna Quinn’s 600-page saga that ranges from Edwardian England to the aftermath of World War Two concentrates on those at the top end of society. That is with the exception of maid Betty who keeps it real through the years by putting the kettle on for a nice cup of tea.

The rambling story switches backwards and forwards in time focusing on different members of the family and their friends although the leading character is Christabel – a small child in 1919 when her father Jasper marries Rosalind in a winter wedding in a socially war-scarred country. We follow her life from lonely three-year-old collecting sticks and snail shells unloved by her stepmother Rosalind but allowed to wander the Seagrave’s Chilcombe estate as a free spirit – to her heroics in the French resistance when she kills a German soldier after being rumbled – and lives to tell the tale – or not tell the tale as mum’s the word as careless talk costs lives. She’s joined by her step siblings Flossie and Digby who together give a structure to the novel through the arc of their lives and yet somehow we don’t get too close to them. Is it the reserve of the inter war generation or the author’s reluctance to explore a potential romance with a German POW or Digby’s love that can’t be named?

There are a wealth of characters that flesh out the epic portrayal of early 20th England (albeit in a rather privileged corner of our green and pleasant land) such as cocky philandering Willoughby who drives around the dusty lanes almost as fast as he drinks and shouts orders around the house. Then there’s Taras whose artistic influence on the children cannot be underestimated in encouraging them to embrace their creative sides and to act in the titular Whalebone Theatre – made from the bones of a dead whale that is washed up on the beach near the house. Christabel lays claim to the carcass and together they produce outdoor theatre within the bones – encouraged by Rosalind who enjoys acting the host in her rather stale marriage to Jasper. It’s a metaphor for the trio as they go on to act throughout their lives – until a sniper’s bullet creates tragedy for them on the cusp on the liberation of Paris in 1944.

The final Victory Pageant in May 1945 poignantly reflects on how much has changed since those rigid upper-class events of four and a half decades earlier. The country estate now in decline, the house open to paying guests and the once lonely three-year-old Christabel now in charge of its post war destiny together with Flossie as they look to the future. The siblings reconnect with their childhood as they still have the Whalebone Theatre where they can again enter a world that is of their creation.

Did I like it? Yes. Some superb sequences especially life in World War 2 but the story had so many minor stories which were not always followed through – almost too many ideas in a novel laid out in five acts – but might have worked better as two or three slimmer volumes.

Harry Mottram

The Whalebone Theatre is published by Fig Tree and is available in all good book shops – or in my case from the library.