These are the years between the wars, and young Cristabel Seagrave plays out her days in the stately Chilcombe manor on the Dorset coast; ‘a many-gabled, many-chimneyed, ivy-covered manor house with an elephantine air of weary grandeur’. She’s an orphan, and a plucky heroine to boot, the natural ringleader of her half-sister Flossie (nicknamed the Veg) and her much-longed-for cousin, Digby, who she considers a brother.
There’s a delightful and expansive cast of characters that play a role in Cristabel, Flossie and Digby’s idiosyncratic childhood; the lady of the manor, Rosalind, who delights in frittering away the family fortunes on décor and parties and not much else. Willoughby, her husband, has roguish but undeniable charm, and a penchant for fast cars and planes. They are joined by bohemian types – an American poetess, a Russian avant-garde artist (and his lovers and semi-feral children). There are also the many staff employed to keep the house running – from the inquisitive maid Maudie Kitcat to the disinterested governess Mademoiselle Aubert. And the Dorset landscape is itself a character alongside the rest of them, personified and alive with the changing seasons.
‘April is blown away by another round of storms, thunder rolling about the bay like a wooden skittle ball, then May steps in with a curtsey, and Dorset blooms with a giddy enthusiasm, like a young girl at her first county ball spun about the dance floor by a strong-handed farmer. The hedgerows take up motion, cow parsley quivering delightedly every time Willoughby roars past in his Daimler.’
Within the first half of the novel we follow this whimsical childhood. A seminal event is the discovery of a whale, washed up on the shores in the summer of 1928. Cristabel declares the carcass her own, and once there has been no sign of the King’s men arriving to stake their claim, the bones of the whale are transported up to the manor, where they become the stage for the titular Whalebone Theatre. From that point onwards, their imaginations can run wild – each summer of their childhood the Seagrave children enlist a troupe and perform to local crowds – Shakespeare, Homer – and delight in the rising star of their amateur productions.
And then, of course, years pass – the war arrives, and everything changes. The plot at this point is driven not by the will of the characters but by the force of history: Cristabel becomes an undercover agent who is parachuted into France, hoping to be reunited with Digby, and Flossie joins the Women’s Land Army. As is the nature of war, other characters disappear and die as the story is propelled forward. Chilcombe manor briefly plays host to evacuees from London, puts on musical evenings to build morale of nearby stationed American servicemen, and slowly falls into a state of disrepair, as England itself slips into yet another year, another Christmas, of this seemingly never-ending conflict.
‘The beach appears very far away, in the same way that their bodies seem distant when seen underwater. How easy it is to separate, from the land, from the shape of yourself. England is an unprepossessing layer of beige and green; it hardly seems worth fighting over.’
Quinn’s writing is gorgeous and evocative, and I particularly enjoyed the textual excursions – lists or diary entries or inventive formatting. Chilcombe is a magnetic force in the novel; I kept wanting to go back there. The first half of the book, set entirely against the Seagrave childhood on the Dorset coast, is dazzling. But this is a book of two halves: once the war begins and we are in occupied France, I found it harder to sustain interest. The plot moves a lot faster, of course, and there is life-or-death peril – but it lost some of the sheen from the first half, and began to feel more generic and, dare I say, predictable.
However, it’s the powerful bonds of love that drive forward the second half when it begins to get bogged down with history – particularly that between Cristabel and Digby, the sensitive boy who always preferred poetry to rugby, over whom Cristabel has always felt fiercely protective.
‘If he were still a boy, she would put her arm around him, but he is twenty-one years old now, a young man who has spent nearly all his adult life at war, and the hunch in his shoulders tells her he does not want to be calmed or comforted, however much she wants to comfort him.’
These later scenes are emotional and affecting, reminding us all of the horrors of war and what humanity is capable of – the bad and the good. A brilliant start that would have benefited from a different approach to the second half, but with a suitably satisfying conclusion ultimately makes this a story well told.