A transporting, irresistible debut novel that takes its heroine, Cristabel Seagrave, from the gargantuan cavity of a beached whale into undercover operations during World War II—a story of love, bravery, lost innocence, and self-transformation.
“Utterly heartbreaking and joyous ... I just disappeared into The Whalebone Theatre and didn’t want to leave.” —Jo Baker, author of Longbourn
One blustery night in 1928, a whale washes up on the shores of the English Channel. By law, it belongs to the King, but twelve-year-old orphan Cristabel Seagrave has other plans. She and the rest of the household—her sister, Flossie; her brother, Digby, long-awaited heir to Chilcombe manor; Maudie Kitcat, kitchen maid; Taras, visiting artist—build a theatre from the beast’s skeletal rib cage. 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.
About the Author
JOANNA QUINN was born in London and grew up in Dorset, in the southwest of England, where her debut novel, The Whalebone Theatre, is set. She has worked in journalism and the charity sector. She is also a short story writer, published by The White Review and Comma Press, among others. She teaches creative writing and lives in a village near the sea in Dorset.
“It’s the book of the summer . . . 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 . . . Generous, filling, deeply satisfying funny-sad, every page crammed with life and experience . . . The Whalebone Theatre is one of those books that has you hooting with laughter one minute and feeling absolutely floored the next . . . Quinn is one of those writers who has her finger on humanity’s pulse. An absolute treat of a book, to be read and reread.” —India Knight, The Sunday Times
“Utterly heartbreaking and joyous . . . I just disappeared into The Whalebone Theatre and didn’t want to leave.” —Jo Baker, author of Longbourn
“Playful, inventive, sharp, funny, The Whalebone Theatre offers the sort of reading experience that is remarkably rare, even for those of us whose happiest hours are spent with books: sheer, undiluted delight from start to finish . . . It breathes fresh, bracing air into the lungs of the multi-generational saga—and the very form of the novel itself . . . Most importantly of all, perhaps, Quinn gives us Cristabel, the sort of intelligent heroine that has been sorely missing from every other classic since Middlemarch . . . It’s impossible not to be charmed by this book.” —Susan Elderkin, author of Voices
“Magnificent. As capacious, surprising and magical as the whale that lends its bones to Cristabel’s theatre: a tale of intertwined lives and braided fates as deftly managed and heartbreaking as a Dickens novel.” —Rebecca Stott, author of Ghostwalk
“Can there be a better proscenium arch than the salvaged ribs of a beached whale? Framed by these giant bones, Quinn’s story passes like a fabulous pageant, richly coloured and packed with incident, taking us from the lonely and unorthodox Dorset childhood of the extraordinary Cristabel to the poignant aftermath of her heroic Second World War. Quinn has a sublime touch: Cristabel and her troupe are unforgettable, as riotous in comedy as they are heart-breaking in tragedy.” —Frances Liardet, author of We Must Be Brave
“The Whalebone Theatre has all the makings of a classic. And Cristabel Seagrave is the most gratifying hero. The war scenes often left me breathless: they are as good as you will ever read. A wonderful debut. Actually, a tour de force.” —Sarah Winman, author of Still Life
“Utterly captivating. An epic romp with characters you cannot help but fall in love with and a plot that takes you in all sorts of unexpected directions. Written with great heart, humour and humanity, it’s the kind of book you want to escape normal life to read at every available opportunity.” —Elizabeth Day, author of The Party
“The circus playfulness of the language, the old story of the great house dazzlingly refreshed, the kind heart and the witty eye, the deep understanding of a girl’s need to be the hero of her own life—this is a book that will be loved unreasonably and life-long, I believe, like I Capture The Castle.”—Francis Spufford, author of Light Perpetual