THE WHALEBONE THEATRE, by Joanna Quinn
Whales loom large not just in the ocean but in landlocked imaginations: these mysterious mammals, gentle but fearsome, threatened and threatening, almost unfathomably enormous. So like us with their warm blood and communication skills, and yet so not.
You might never have cracked Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” and still use the phrase “great white whale” to mean an obsessive but elusive goal. The massive model in the Museum of Natural History was immortalized further by Noah Baumbach in “The Squid and the Whale.” Don’t forget Carvel’s Fudgie, the ’70s sheet cake that won’t quit. And one of the most appealing characters in Lidia Yuknavitch’s recent novel “Thrust” was the wearily maternal whale who helped out the human protagonist.
The 60-foot-long, seven-foot-tall creature that appears in Joanna Quinn’s first novel, “The Whalebone Theatre,” is, alas, D.O.A., found beached on the coast of Dorset, England, by a 12-year-old named Cristabel, with the all-too-apt surname Seagrave. She quickly pierces her discovery with a homemade flagpole fluttering with the family coat of arms and shouts, “A mighty leviathan, I have claimed it,” to amused fishermen in the vicinity.
Taking up toy weapons and disdainful of marriage plots, Cristabel is outlined in the endearing if slightly stock shape of unconventional heroine. Having wondered, “Why aren’t there interesting girls in the stories?” while being read the “Iliad” by Maudie, the kitchen maid who for a time shares her attic bedroom, she is determined, perhaps a little overdetermined, to write her own.
She and her younger half sibling, Flossie (nicknamed “the Veg” for an indelicate countenance), and cousin Digby, whom she treasures as a brother, circumvent the laws about “fishes royal” belonging to the king, and will make of the whale skeleton a giant play space: to stage actual plays, the greatest hits of Shakespeare’s catalog, with help from the bohemian adults visiting Chilcombe, the estate where they live. Quinn has said in interviews she got the idea of the skeleton set from a Kate Bush concert.
She is being eagerly interviewed because “The Whalebone Theatre,” a generous slab of historical fiction cut from the same crumbling stone as Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited” and Elizabeth Jane Howard’s “The Cazalet Chronicles,” is a big hit in England. Centered on imperiled aristocracy during the well-trod period of 1919-45, it’s also been compared (inevitably, and to Quinn’s dismay) to “Downton Abbey,” Chilcombe being almost a character in its own right. I was reminded further, at least during its delightful first third, of Dodie Smith’s cult classic “I Capture the Castle” and of a lesser-known work by the prolific children’s book author Noel Streatfeild, “The Growing Summer,” in which four siblings are sent to live with their eccentric aunt in Ireland.
Shimmeringly if sometimes a little preciously, Quinn depicts the strange, resourceful magic that can be conjured by a cluster of children when they’re neglected by selfish adults. Overseen by a vague French governess, they educate themselves with books stolen from the study, by eavesdropping from cloakrooms on drunken dinner parties and by running around with young “savages” they encounter scuttling naked around the shore, the progeny of Taras, a daring Russian artist.
We first meet Cristabel when she is just 3, finding the taste of snow “disappointingly nothingy.” Her mother died in childbirth and her new stepmother, Rosalind, is vain, beautiful and cold like the snow, though not evil. Her stolid father, Jasper — still mourning his late wife, who haunts the ancestral pile like a more benign Rebecca de Winter — will soon be dead as well, tumbled from a horse (of course), his dashing younger brother, Willoughby, stepping easily into his shoes.
The new couple will entertain a parade of international visitors of which Taras is the most vivid and voluble, enjoying boozy picnics by the sea and shopping expeditions — at least until it’s time to fight the Nazis. “We don’t have a choice,” Willoughby tells Rosalind, crackling his newspaper, when the doted-upon Digby enlists. “Surely they had a choice. They always had a choice,” she thinks, suspended in the recent past. “They chose extravagantly and at length. Fabrics, perfumes, tables in restaurants.”
On atmospherics, “The Whalebone Theatre” is absolute aces, to borrow the patois of the Americans who drop in for cultural contrast, new-moneyed and loud. Reading it is like plunging into a tub of clotted cream while (or whilst) enrobed in silk eau-de-Nil beach pajamas. You’ll immediately want to change your font to Garamond and start saying things like “Toodle-pip, darlings!” The weather, whether misty or stormy, dappling sunshine or “moonlight falling through the window like an invitation,” is consistently impressive.
Quinn is an energetic narrative seamstress. Into her giant tapestry she stitches in letters, lists, scrapbook entries, dramatic dialogue, Maudie’s sexually adventuresome diary entries and the occasional piece of concrete poetry. All of this is lovely and unforced.
The novel begins to veer off the rails, however, when a grown Cristabel, “sick of pushing tiddlywinks about” as a member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, becomes a secret agent, wrestling down an SS officer with the sudden physical dexterity of Angelina Jolie in “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.” The theater of childhood has become, yes, the theater of war. Flossie joins the Women’s Land Army, remaining at Chilcombe, where the finances have become predictably shaky, skinny-dipping with a German prisoner of war as vegetables fill their onetime proscenium. Maudie writes of sleeping with a Black soldier who plays her Billie Holiday (“he calls me a tall drink of water, but he is a river and I will lay myself along him”). Like many characters, even the older principals, even the poor whale, he is just passing through.
Gorgeous and a little breathless, with luscious food scenes from beginning to end — enough cake and pudding for a thousand Carvels — “The Whalebone Theatre” could have been tighter corseted. But Quinn’s imagination and adventuresome spirit are a pleasure to behold, boding more commanding work to come.
THE WHALEBONE THEATRE | By Joanna Quinn | 576 pp. | Knopf | $29