It’s that time of year that begs for a fire in the firebox and a big, fat book. Joanna Quinn’s debut novel, THE WHALEBONE THEATRE, a 540-page family saga, is the perfect accompaniment to the cold nights ahead.
The book opens when our heroine, Cristabel Seagrave is yet three years old. Her mother has died and her father, Jasper, has taken a new bride, Rosalind, who loathes them both. Cristabel is unabashed, she sees Rosalind as merely a vehicle for a little brother. Much to her dismay, Rosalind delivers a baby girl named Flossie instead. When Cristabel’s father falls from his horse in a drunken stupor and dies, he is quickly replaced in Rosalind’s affections by his younger brother Willoughby. Cristabel will gain a boy cousin, Digby, in that coupling.
The children in THE WHALEBONE THEATRE are left to themselves, running like savages along the shore. The adult caregivers, Rosalind and Willoughby and their cadre of bohemian friends, are feckless and libertine. At times, Cristabel is the only adult in the room. When she’s twelve, a whale washes up on their beach and Cristabel plants a flag in it, declaring it hers. From the bones, she fashions a theatre where the children stage elaborate recreations of Shakespearean plays – recruiting the adults to participate as actors, set-builders, and costumers. Cristabel is the ringleader, producer, and director.
Opening in 1919, THE WHALEBONE THEATRE spans the Second World War and its aftermath. The children, their parents, and their rotating cast of hedonistic friends, live in Dorset on the sea in Chilcombe Manor. Cristabel, Flossie, and Digby live separate lives from the adults, sleeping in an attic garret with maid Maudie, their education stolen books and newspapers from the library downstairs.
By the time the war breaks out, Cristabel and Digby, now adults, enlist and become spies in occupied France, but Flossie remains behind at crumbling Chilcombe, working for the Land Army and falling in love with a German POW who is assigned the task of helping her grow vegetables for the war effort. The children have traded their outgrown costumes for a new sort — uniforms and overalls – each embracing their role in the theater of war.
THE WHALEBONE THEATRE is a stunning debut – full of adventure and intrigue, Dickensian characters, and a mildewed mansion on the seaside. Joanna Quinn sets the stage for an immersive read, an escape from the doldrums of winter.
Listen to my interview with Joanna Quinn on Superior Reads on October 27 at 7:00 pm on WTIP 90.7 Grand Marais or stream it from the web at http://www.wtip.org. This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.