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  • Writer's pictureThe Bossy Bookworm

Review of The Whalebone Theatre by Joanna Quinn

The Whalebone Theatre begins with offbeat children's performances on a lazy, decadent English estate in the 1920s and builds to the young-adulthood of each of three characters, which are deeply shaped by World War II.


The war and all its deprivations seem relentless, but for Cristabel, there is a strange and guilty thrill running through it, for it is exactly this thinning of the ordinary that allows the unordinary through.

Joanna Quinn's debut novel is a hefty 558 pages, and the story sweeps through time from the 1920s malaise of the children and the excess of the adults on a secluded English estate, Chilcombe Manor, on to World War II, as experienced by a community of family and friends.

Quinn traces the lives of the unflappable orphan Cristabel Seagrave, her stepsister Flossie, and her cousin Digby (raised in the same household as siblings); as well as their inept parents, their parents' unpredictable friends--mainly artists and partiers--that flock to Chilcombe and stay and stay; and the servants who make possible the family's privileged life of debauchery, boredom, and flashes of thrill.

Cristabel, Flossie, and Digby are often uncomfortable with the roles placed upon them by others (the difficult and wild orphan, the pleaser of a daughter without a backbone, and the cherished, golden male heir) as they seek to establish their own identities. The nontraditional parental figures--a Russian artist and frequent visitor, a rough-edged maid, a figurative uncle--exert occasional, sometimes powerful influence over the children and how they consider their places in the world.

The beginning of the book moves quite slowly, which is fitting for the decadent, ongoing series of lavish dinner parties, hangovers, persistent hangers-on, and malaise occurring for the adults, who are largely without pressing business or life missions where they might direct their generational wealth. The children are largely unattended during this time, but their bonds to each other are solidified.

The pacing of the story picks up, appropriately, when World War II begins to shift the world, exerting changes that finally trickle down to Chilcombe and its inhabitants. I loved reading as the children come into themselves--in fits and starts--as young adults, and I came to care deeply about them, their roles in the wartime efforts, and their potential for various happy-ever-afters.

The Whalebone Theatre meanders from children's makeshift performances put on in a theatre framed by whale ribs to spy missions related to the French Resistance and the tragedies of war. This is a lovely book to sink into.

I listened to The Whalebone Theatre as an audiobook, narrated wonderfully by Olivia Vinall.

Do you have any Bossy thoughts about this book?

The Whalebone Theatre is Joanna Quinn's debut novel.

For books I've read and reviewed about World War II, click here.

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