Andrea’s Pick of the Week: The Whalebone Theatre by Joanna Quinn

The Whalebone Theatre has such a unique title that I couldn’t resist diving in. What on earth could a “whalebone theatre” be? And why would we want to read about it? As it turns out, the theatre is exactly what it sounds like: a theatre built within the ribcage of a huge whale that washed up from the ocean. As for why it’s interesting, this theatre creates a connection for the book’s main characters, one that grounds them and brings them together throughout their lives.

But back to the plot. Cristabel, Flossie and Digby Seagrave are children in their family’s crumbling manor house in Dorset in 1928, when the aforementioned whale washes ashore on their property. Crista, the oldest, claims the whale as her own. Aided by her stepparents’ bohemian friends, she creates the whalebone theatre, and the whole village turns out to see the plays they present. The theatre is an outlet for the three children, where they can be themselves, free from the confinement of their roles in society. The story then jumps to World War II, where both Crista and Digby serve as secret operatives in France while Flossie joins the Land Girls and keeps things going on the estate.

Joanna Quinn

At its heart, this is a book about family ties and the unconditional love between siblings. It’s also a feminist story, as Crista chafes against the restrictions placed on her as a woman, and a story about finding your place in the world. It has a little bit of everything: adventure, romance, drama, and of course the always-appealing pre-war and WWII setting. Quinn’s language is exquisite—it was a pleasure to let the paragraphs wash over me. The sections about the Seagraves’ childhood are heart-wrenching, while the passages about the war are exciting and equally moving. My only caution is that the first part of the book can be slow going, but don’t be deterred—the pace quickens in the second half.

This is a poignant, engrossing work of historical fiction. Great for book clubs too.

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