The Whalebone Theatre: 5*. My favourite novel of 2022. I have just finished reading The Whalebone Theatre and I am feeling stunned. It is a magnificent, entrancing novel that I fell totally in love with. I’m left reeling from its impact and rather bereft that it’s over. This is a novel to cherish and read again and again and again.
A quick glance at its reviews show that I’m not the only reader to have been bewitched by The Whalebone Theatre. To think that this gem was sitting, ignored, on my Kindle all this time without my knowing what I was in for!
So where to begin… It’s a family saga about two generations of the Seagrave family, taking us from 1919 to 1945. Out of one World War and through a second one. I feel like I’ve read so many books set in this period, which has inspired generations of British (and other) novelists and provided fertile material for many a great novel. It’s a particular treat to find a novel that takes these classic scenes and themes and views them through a 21st century lens.
And yet… It’s also timeless. Women have strained against their social straitjackets forever. People have struggled to escape societal expectations forever, even as others wanted nothing more than to play by the rules and stick to what was expected of them. The world is made up of radicals and conservatives, revolutionaries and reactionaries, permanently fighting each other and sometimes striving to understand each other. Hating and loving each other.
The Whalebone Theatre has everything that makes a novel great, and a great read: superb prose, characters that are so real and vivid you feel you have known them for years, skillful plotting, descriptions of places and events that make you feel you are right there, part of it.
Central characters – such as Rosalind, Cristabel, Florence and Digby, in particular – feel like members of your own family. I found myself thinking thoughts like “That’s so Florence”, “Cristabel would hate that”, and “Oh, Rosalind!” as if I were talking about people I’ve known all my life. One particular scene had me crying my eyes out. Whenever I was away from it, I was thinking about it.
All of this is what makes this novel so good. Not only do events play out in an interesting way, but they play out in what feels like the only possible way, given the people in them.
The Whalebone Theatre is one of those marvelous books that abounds with ‘literary’ qualities yet is as gripping as an airport thriller. Perfect as a beach read or for a cozy read before a fire.
It’s astonishing that this is a first (or first published) novel. I really hope Joanna Quinn has another novel on the way. I can’t wait.
Thanks to Netgalley, the author and the publisher for providing an ARC. All my reviews are 100% honest no matter how I acquire the book.
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