Within the Whalebone Theatre, Cristabel can escape her feckless stepparents and brisk governesses, and her imagination comes to life. As Cristabel grows into a headstrong young woman, World War II rears its head. She and Digby become British secret agents on separate missions in Nazi-occupied France—a more dangerous kind of playacting, it turns out, and one that threatens to tear the family apart.
... comes with an unexpected 21st-century sensibility so that it feels modern rather than homage-like and is bursting with energy and zip ... Honestly, I want to sound a trumpet and put out some flags. It is pure heaven from first word to last. It’s a debut novel, incredibly for something so assured and fully realised, although it did take the author something like ten years to write ... There are scandals and affairs, heartbreak, longing, a brilliant description of the long, slow fade of love based on desire, and a devastating explanation of why Jasper is as he is. (I have never read a more moving description of how and why a sweet little boy might turn into a pompous prig. Quinn is superb at explaining broken hearts of all types, and hearts generally) ... Quinn’s writing throughout is . . . the word I keep coming back to is 'generous'. It’s as though she had made the reader the most lavish and delicious cake, with layers of cream and so much fruit that it spills out on to the plate. Although a cake perhaps suggests a cloying sweetness. There is no cloying; this is lucid storytelling. Here is the world, Quinn seems to say, in all its glory and misery, its tiny little joys and its great dollops of pain — all of it valuable and there for the taking, to make of what you will ... one of those books that has you hooting with laughter one minute (although the laughter is never unkind, which is a whole other skill; you never snigger) and feeling absolutely floored the next, not just because of the meanderings of the plot or Quinn’s acute emotional intelligence, but because she is one of those writers who has her finger on humanity’s pulse. An absolute treat of a book, to be read and reread.
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 ... Quinn makes sure the other characters around Cristabel are just as vividly delineated ... a supremely accomplished feat of storytelling. After ending on a dramatic high, Quinn leaves her readers eagerly anticipating her next act.
These spunky, somewhat benignly neglected children, with a pedigree stretching from Charles Dickens to Lemony Snicket, might seem familiar, but they have their own peculiar and particular charm, as do the supporting cast of flamboyant visitors, eccentric locals and unflappable family retainers. And when the drama shifts to wartime footing, that familiarity, so lovingly recast and cultivated, has secured our affection for these characters and our interest in the new roles they assume ... For all its theatricality and amusements, outsize and intimate, The Whalebone Theatre is most interesting and moving as the story of these siblings, Cristabel in particular, making something of their own out of the material they’ve been given, finding their rightful place in a drama not always of their own making. Which is to say, because it’s all made up, after all, the real performance here is Joanna Quinn’s. What’s remarkable, especially for a first novel, is her deft way of depicting this lost world — whether a subsiding seaside aristocracy or a training school for British agents or a Parisian theater in wartime — convincingly enough to let us see it simply as a setting for the unfolding drama. Her vision is so fine and fully realized that it’s hard to imagine her doing anything else — and hard to have to wait to see what that might be.