One stormy night in March 1928, 12-year-old Cristabel Seagrave ventures out of Chilcombe, her family's Dorset manor — an "aching old house beneath the rook-filled trees" — and discovers a dead whale washed up on the beach. The next morning, she shows it to her half-sister Flossie and her cousin Digby, who are equally awestruck.
The three children devise plans to examine and exhibit the creature. In the end, and true to form, Cristabel comes up with the bolder, more unconventional idea of building an open-air theater from the whale's ribcage.
This outlandish proposal becomes a reality. The creative children, who act out scenes with sock puppets against cardboard backdrops in their attic, are soon performing in amateur productions of "The Iliad" and "The Tempest" in their Whalebone Theatre.
They are not alone on their stage. Cristabel enlists the help of everyone on the Chilcombe estate, from her icily aloof stepmother Rosalind, to inquisitive kitchen maid Maudie, to Russian artist Taras and his bohemian entourage.
The ragbag theater company wows the public and the press throughout the 1930s. But then war breaks out, disrupting the lives of everyone at Chilcombe. Cristabel's playacting skills are tested when she is recruited as an undercover agent and parachuted into occupied France to help Resistance fighters. But during a debrief, she learns that Digby, on a separate secret mission, is missing. Can she track him down while simultaneously trying to evade capture and stay alive?
Most first novels that clock in at nearly 600 pages smack of self-indulgence on the author's part and prove a slog for the reader. In contrast, Joanna Quinn's epic debut is an immersive, capacious delight. Quinn, who teaches creative writing and lives on the Dorset coast, excels with the nuts and bolts of her craft — characterization, pace, plotting, and well calibrated humor and suspense — and brilliantly depicts the rugged beauty of her county "on the crumbling bottom edge of England."
Quinn takes a risk by serving up two markedly different halves — the first mapping an idiosyncratic childhood, the second chronicling wartime danger and adventure. But Cristabel, who emerges from the book's bustling cast to be its main protagonist, provides the necessary link. We follow her, and indeed champion her, as she makes the transition from young imaginative girl to gutsy indomitable heroine. Her exploits in France, which bring to mind Sebastian Faulks' novel "Charlotte Gray," are charged with thrills and pathos. Here, in particular, the pages fly by.
Quinn makes sure the other characters around Cristabel are just as vividly delineated. Notable presences include her starchy father, Jasper; her dashing daredevil uncle Willoughby, and Land Army girl Flossie, who falls for Hans, a German prisoner of war. Cristabel's lucklessness in love renders her all the more endearing.
"The Whalebone Theatre" is a supremely accomplished feat of storytelling. After ending on a dramatic high, Quinn leaves her readers eagerly anticipating her next act.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Wall Street Journal. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The Whalebone Theatre
By: Joanna Quinn.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 576 pages, $29.