cover image The Whalebone Theatre

The Whalebone Theatre

Joanna Quinn. Knopf, $29 (560p) ISBN 978-0-593-32170-6

The emotional upheaval of the interwar years in England is dramatized afresh in Quinn’s dazzling and imaginative debut. Cristabel Seagrave’s mother dies in childbirth, and Cristabel’s father, Jasper, who remarries when she is three, dies soon after. This leaves Cristabel to be raised by her disinterested stepmother, Rosalind, who then marries Cristabel’s aviation-obsessed uncle Willoughby, Jasper’s brother. In 1928, when Cristabel is 12, she discovers a dead whale washed up on the beach adjoining the decaying Seagrave estate. She turns the whale’s rib cage into the proscenium for a theatre, where she ambitiously stages The Iliad and The Tempest with the help of her half sister Flossie, cousin Digby, loyal kitchen maid Maudie Kitkat, and Taras Kovalsky, a Russian artist. Fourteen years later, Cristabel and Digby’s experiences at playacting will come in handy when they are both parachuted into France on separate espionage missions to help the Resistance during WWII. But will they survive to see the renaissance of the Whalebone Theatre? Thorny, idiosyncratic Cristabel is a formidable first among equals in this expansive cast of memorable eccentrics. Peacetime whimsy gracefully segues into scenes of unbearable tension and heart-wrenching suspense as Cristabel boldly infiltrates Paris on the eve of its liberation. Combining elements of I Capture the Castle, Brideshead Revisited, and Charlotte Gray, this is a reading experience to be long cherished. Agent: Clare Alexander, Aitken Alexander Assoc. (Oct.)