The title sounds like a metaphor, but there really is a theater made of a whale’s ribcage in this sweeping historical epic. It stands on a grassy headland on the Dorset coast, draped in scenery, the creation of young Cristabel Seagrave, whose passion for amateur dramatics ropes in family and servants alike at the Chilcombe estate. Here we have the country set in all their jazz-age glory, with cocktails at breakfast, costumes at teatime and a general sense that the world is a peach ripe for plucking.
Joanna Quinn, a creative writing teacher, has gone big with her first novel, following the fortunes of the Seagraves from 1919 to 1945. The focus is mainly on Cristabel, feisty and imaginative, though the narrative flits to other characters including her flighty stepmother, Rosalind, and her step-siblings, sensitive Digby and romantic Flossie. Social variety is provided by a visiting painter, Taras, whose wild black beard and Russian elan establish him as the essence of Louche Bohemian Artist. (“You know Paris?” someone asks him. “As I know the bodies of my lovers,” he replies.)
It is Taras who encourages Cristabel to cultivate her artistic inclinations and put on a play. This initiates one of the book’s themes of play-acting, which runs right through from Rosalind, valiantly pretending to be a happy wife and mother, to the English agents in the second world war, when a far more serious pretence is required from those parachuted in to occupied France. Quinn hammers this home a little too hard at times – “My new uniform is quite the best costume I’ve ever worn,” Digby writes in 1939 – but it’s a pleasing device.
However, Quinn never pushes the idea far enough to make the reader catch her breath – and that’s the weakness of the novel, which despite its engaging storytelling cannot match the likes of models such as Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles or Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. Quinn simply doesn’t take enough risks. She has her characters narrate in turn, which means they have no secrets from us; she makes them likable, with few hidden resentments or schemes. The older generation don’t alter as they age, dropping out of the narrative as they cease to be interesting. The younger ones are better treated in that they mature and undergo life-altering challenges; but the main driver of tension in their story comes from historical events.
There are moments when we get a glimpse of something more invigorating. Digby has a heart-to-heart with an officer who, after a pause, tells him: “I have a friend. A radio operator. He’s stationed up in Orkney. I miss him very much.” For a brief moment, a door opens and we get a spark of the electricity Sarah Waters generated in her wartime novel, The Night Watch. But here, Digby is flummoxed and Quinn lets the tension dissolve into nothing. Similarly, a certain tendresse between one of her characters and a German PoW echoes the febrile relationship in Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française, but doesn’t attain its perilous intensity.
This is partly down to Quinn’s decision to portray early 20th-century society as progressive and liberal-minded. Homophobia and class prejudice are never articulated. This gives the book a cosy, teatime feeling: delightful to indulge in, but denying us the thrill of fear that comes when characters are really up against it. It’s only when those reliable baddies the Nazis come into play that the adrenaline flows.
The Whalebone Theater is a grand story, sensitively told; Quinn is surely capable of so much more, if she can only bring herself to break a few more bones on her stage of her.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism