I saved The Whalebone Theatre for my holiday read. This was to be my foray away from PhD reading that seems to consume most of my reading time. Honestly speaking, I don’t think I could have picked a better book. Aside from being completely delicious to hold (the shimmering gold, ‘that’ blue of the page ends and the sheer indulgence, a gift to me, of a hardback), Joanna Quinn has created an unforgettable book.
I bought the book from Falmouth Bookseller, and was thrilled to see it was a signed edition. I thought I would like it (from early reviews, by writers I rate), I hadn’t expected to become wrapped in it. Quinn, according to an Instagram thread, hasn’t read Elizabeth Jane Howard, and there’s a part of me that wants to say, ‘don’t, not until your work is done with the Seagraves.’ I wouldn’t want the ghost of Howard interfere with Quinn’s craft.
That said, it’s hard not to draw comparisons (and that’s what we do, we writers, when we think about books) so I’m not going to bother editing it out.
Like Howard, Quinn is an incredible observer of people – her characters are well-defined and described through what they do and say. Each one could have (and did) walk off the page. It is the intricacies between Quinn’s characters that carries the whole novel. Of course there’s a plot, but this reader was totally engaged because of the dimensions and tensions that she created in her characterisation. Some I rooted for, others I was happy to see fade. I adored the fact, a bit like du Maurier’s Manderley, that Chilcombe had its own character. Place is central to this book, a theme that resonates with me as a reader.
Sometimes we write with an idea of exploring a theme, but sometimes those themes emerge as we write. I’m not sure what Quinn’s process is as a writer. As readers we project the themes on a novel, as we do in any situation when we offer ‘feedback’ (so says psychotherapist me), and some of those written in bypass the reader. I noticed the females – some strong and some not-so. I hated ‘Veg’ being called ‘Veg’, and was delighted with the transformation to Flossie, and her struggle in finding her place. I found Rosalind unappealing, always wrapped in silk, the perfect hostess of her time. I would have hated to be her. Christabel is the hero of the novel, perfectly flawed (no spoilers from me), on her own journey. At the same time, was a layer of ‘downstairs’, and Maudie was a total gift. From her early diary entries, through her charging through the war years and discarding her maid’s outfit to the Irish Sea. So much expressed in such a small part (due to the incredible talent of Quinn). It is many parts bildungsroman, in no bad way.
As for the men. Well, they die or disappear. Much as happened in World War II (and my own family narrative). Jasper… I still experience what happened to him (due to the writing) and I wanted more from his brother, Willoughby, but he was actually rather self-absorbed and flaky. There is always someone to shake things up, and I think Taran was the agent in the novel. He brought an east wind, along with themes of playing, acting and finding your ‘why’.
There are so many other moments that I could read over and over – Christabel conquering the whale, her special training, the drops into France, the theatre in Monmatre, the last battle… All visceral and expertly crafted.
In some ways, I wish that Quinn had not covered so much ground. And here is my conflict – the Cazalet hang up, where Howard extended the dramatisation in those shifting viewpoints across five books. I hope there is more, in a saga way, when it may not be Christabel. I want to know what happens when attitudes and lives change. When children are born. My curiosity runs away with me, because I care. Joanna Quinn, this is a remarkable debut.