Joanna Quinn creates a fascinating world with a touch of jazz age and a pinch of Downton Abbey ★★★★☆

Joanna QuinnPicture Nancy Turner

‘This roaring roar is a king’s fool!’, Shakespeare tells his boatman at the beginning of The storm. As so often with Shakespeare, a storm announces that change is coming. That the existing roles are changed.

The British author Joanna Quinn has chosen the quote as the motto for her debut The whale theater (That Whalebone Theatre). It turns out to be an appropriate choice on several levels. To begin with, in this novel we encounter many performances of Shakespeare’s famous romance. Besides The storm – with its ever-changing aerial spirit Ariel – in many ways a play about the theatre. The whale theateron the other hand, is a novel about drama, role-playing and change.

The book begins just after the end of the First World War. The main character Christabel lives with father Jasper and a large group of servants in the stately country house of Chilcombe, near the Dorset coast. Mother died at Christabel’s birth. Jasper remarries the beautiful but aloof Rosalind (we’re staying in Shakespearean moods), a “graceful London debutante” who has seen her marriage chances disappear in the carnage of the war among the “suitable” young men.

Quinn paints a compelling picture of England in the 1920s: a touch of the Jazz Age, a good touch of decline for the aristocracy and the class just below. The reader has associations with Bridal head, Cazalets and a knife tip Downton Abbey.

When Jasper dies in a fall from his horse, Rosalind marries her whistling brother Willoughby, as charming as Jasper was unattractive. Rosalind’s marriages to both brothers produced two children: Florence and her half-brother Digby.

When Christabel, Flossie and Digby find a dead whale on the beach, they decide to use the animal’s bones to mark an open-air theater: the whale theater. Because under the influence of the wayward Christabel, they created a real theater company. Under her inspiring direction, classics are performed: theater adaptations of Homer and especially a lot of Shakespeare.

Visual formulations

Quinn’s striking, visual wording captures attention from the first page. The last day of December is “the waste of the year,” fat Jasper steps out of his carriage “like a fava bean bursting out of its shell,” an angry nanny’s voice “rushes before her like a pack of barking dogs,” maids in white caps is ‘as busy and remote as seagulls’, England’s mind-numbing south coast offers ‘the limpest handshake in the sea’, the cleavage of a woman in her forties ‘starts to look like crepe paper’.

Also form-technical The whale theater distinctly interesting. Like David Mitchell Utopia Avenue structured as if it were three LPs of songs, Quinn builds his book like a five-act play with an encore. She plays with typography and, in addition to an omniscient narrator, uses forms such as diaries, letters, maps and catalog texts. And – original and extremely funny – lists of ‘what can be found under the various beds’, of ‘tricks the children have learned when they crawl out of bed and hide in the wardrobe’, as well as ‘things the children knew if they weren’t fell asleep in the wardrobe’.

Technical skill

The way in which Quinn navigates his book in a temporal acceleration from the late 1920s to the eve of World War II is unusually clever. She does this on the basis of a number of extracts from reviews of the stage performances that Christabel, Florence, Digby and their company give each year, and which very compactly outline the development over a period of more than ten years. So much formal inventiveness in a debut novel can be called remarkable.

When we get to World War II, the tone changes. The relative innocence of childhood is over. The manor in Dorset is falling into disrepair, there are fewer and fewer employees, the German invasion is imminent. All three children, now young adults, play a role in the war. Christabel and Digby become involved in undercover operations in occupied France, drawing on their childhood theatrical experiences in both symbolic and practical ways. “My new uniform is the best costume I ever wore,” Digby tellingly writes to Christabel.

‘Being who you are not’ is a common thread throughout The whale theater. Over the course of the book, the idea of ​​’taking on another identity’ changes character. From playful, via adventurous to creepy. Because just like in a play, everything in real life is not what it appears to be. Who said the world is a stage?

Joanna Quinn: The Whale Theatre. Translated from English by Ineke van Bronswijk and Valérie Janssen. Library; 544 pages; €24.99.

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