Book Review: The Whalebone Theatre

Art inspires art. Anger, hatred, hunger – these can also inspire.

Joanna Quin ~ The Whalebone Theatre


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. 


When I started reading this I was extremely excited. Sadly it didn’t capture my heart immediately so I put it down.

Several (in fact six) months later I came back to it and was swept away in the children’s theatre adventures. The book then dragged on once war arrived, skipping forward with little reason to do so. These parts added very little to the story and diluted it somewhat.

Once Crista entered the resistance, it became interesting once more, before losing my attention again until the last section.

As the copy I read is a proof, I am sure the final version is shorter, with the key parts of the story elevated, and the excessive detail removed.

Overall, I did enjoy it, but my rating is a touch generous. The book is well-written, but struggles to find its identity. While the first and last Acts are excellent, the middle chapters lack flow and feel forced. Certain characters develop well; others do not and this is a shame, considering the importance of all three children at the start.

There are a few unanswered questions at the end, but perhaps that is deliberate as war is so unpredictable.

A really good story, but a little jumbled, long and slow. 

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Thanks to Penguin Fig Tree for my copy. Opinions my own.

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