Review | ‘The Whalebone Theatre’ deftly depicts Europe before and during WWII

There’s something performative about most historical fiction, whether that means channeling a real-life character (e.g., Thomas Cromwell a la Hilary Mantel) or stage-dressing a period drama, as Joanna Quinn does in her debut novel set in World War II’s European theater. But, as its title suggests, “The Whalebone Theatre” puts that performance center stage, so to speak. The titular theater — or theatre, this being England — is the brainchild of a brainy child named Cristabel, 4 years old when we meet her, waiting for her father to fetch home his new young bride, Rosalind, who is stepmother material only in the fairy-tale sense.

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Sure enough, once Rosalind produces a child of her own, a baby girl promptly dubbed The Veg for her unpromising appearance, Cristabel’s father falls off a horse and dies, leaving her an orphan, and Rosalind with an attenuated fortune, a moldering mansion and a charming brother-in-law to console her. In short order, the mourning pair marry and produce their own darling heir.

There you have the main cast members: Cristabel; her half sister, Flossie (The Veg); Flossie’s half brother, Digby; Flossie and Digby’s stylish mother, Rosalind; and Willoughby, Digby’s dashing father, who’s mostly dashing off. The setting: Chilcombe, “a many-gabled, many-chimneyed, ivy-covered manor house with an elephantine air of weary grandeur…[that] has huddled on a wooded cliff overhanging the ocean for four hundred years.”

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Cristabel, like so many fictional orphans, is plucky, fiercely imaginative and prodigiously precocious. She reads discarded newspapers and steals books from her father’s study — “collections of Greek myths; leather-bound volumes of The Iliad and The Odyssey … adventure stories by someone called G. A. Henty … based on true episodes in England’s glorious history.” With this library of romance, adventure and history at hand, Cristabel gamely undertakes the entertainment and education of her siblings. And when a gargantuan fin whale washes up on the beach, she knows what to do. “A mighty leviathan!” she shouts to wondering fishermen. “I have claimed it.” (“We’ll see what the coastguard has to say about that,” they reply.)

It is from this decaying dead whale that the rib bones are extracted, which in time become the theater where Cristabel stages plays with cast and crew culled from family, staff and houseguests (a dramatic American poetess, a burly Russian expat artist and his semi-savage offspring). And these theatrical seasons of expanding ambition and fame carry us right up to the outbreak of World War II.

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These spunky, somewhat benignly neglected children, with a pedigree stretching from Charles Dickens to Lemony Snicket, might seem familiar, but they have their own peculiar and particular charm, as do the supporting cast of flamboyant visitors, eccentric locals and unflappable family retainers. And when the drama shifts to wartime footing, that familiarity, so lovingly recast and cultivated, has secured our affection for these characters and our interest in the new roles they assume: Cristabel and Digby as spies in occupied France and Flossie as a Land Army girl at home, overseeing a German POW in the vegetable garden and stables, housing American officers and hosting musical evenings for the soldiers.

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Likewise, the imaginary world that Cristabel so exuberantly constructed for herself from books and plays has prepared her for her real-life adventure. “Whenever she now tucks her military pistol into its holster or zips up her camouflage parachute suit, she feels solemn and justified, as if she is finally inhabiting her rightful story.” And yet, “she is discomforted by a nagging sense that by stepping into her story she might somehow be seen. Because the imagined place of the child within the story does not show the child herself. Because had the Duke of Wellington or Admiral Nelson ever looked down and seen that a small girl had joined their forces, that girl would have been sent home.”

For all its theatricality and amusements, outsize and intimate, “The Whalebone Theatre” is most interesting and moving as the story of these siblings, Cristabel in particular, making something of their own out of the material they’ve been given, finding their rightful place in a drama not always of their own making. Which is to say, because it’s all made up, after all, the real performance here is Joanna Quinn’s. What’s remarkable, especially for a first novel, is her deft way of depicting this lost world — whether a subsiding seaside aristocracy or a training school for British agents or a Parisian theater in wartime — convincingly enough to let us see it simply as a setting for the unfolding drama. Her vision is so fine and fully realized that it’s hard to imagine her doing anything else — and hard to have to wait to see what that might be.

Ellen Akins is the author of four novels and a collection of stories, “World Like a Knife.”

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