Review: The Whalebone Theatre, by Joanna Quinn
By Rebecca Bormann
Cristabel, Flossie and Digby Seagrave are half/step siblings growing up in a country house in Dorset in the interwar years. Largely ignored by their caddish father figure and barely tolerated by their society-driven mother, they live independent, unparented lives, with a vivid imagination fueled by the books they smuggle out of the library. One day a dead whale washes up on the beach nearby and is swiftly “claimed” by Cristabel, who climbs aboard the creature and plants a flag at the highest point. The discovery of the whale coincides with the arrival at the house of a renowned eccentric Russian artist and together, they start an amateur theatre company, with plays performed within the framing bones of the whale.
So far, so jolly. Soon, however, World War II plunges the country into turmoil and the three children, or young adults as they are by then, are keen to play their part in the war effort. Cristabel and Digby find that their years of performing and play-acting are a lifesaving skill as they are sent undercover to France to assist the resistance movement.
It is a novel of two halves. Firstly, it is a sensitive and emotive tale of three children growing up in a world of privilege, yet starved of parental love and affection. The house, Chilcombe, looms large in the story, with its characterful servants and proximity to the beach and the woods. Endless days of mooching around the house and grounds, eavesdropping on the wild and boozy dinner parties hosted by their parents and picnicking on the cliff tops is pleasantly reminiscent of “I Capture The Castle” or “Swallows and Amazons”. Beautiful turns of phrase (“Bring a picnic, bring a rug, bring a lap to lie on, a head to lie upon your lap”) make up for the sometimes overly-nostalgic portrayal of plucky English children. Would three under-twelves really love the Iliad that much?
The tone changes as the war gets underway and all three embark on their various wartime adventures. Kept apart by the conflict, the narrative becomes more disparate, though no less enjoyable for it. Wartime Britain is vividly described and their various endeavours up the ante and the pace as the story reaches its finale. I found this thoroughly absorbing and evocative.