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This novel tells the story of three sisters making their way in vaudeville in Canada in the early 1900s. Aurora, Clover and Bella, together with their widowed and fragile mother Flora, go from theatre to theatre, sometimes headlining, sometimes opening the show and experiencing the various ups and downs of vaudeville and life in general.

The book covers the period from shortly before the outbreak of World War I, to shortly before the end of that war. As the family move from across the country, they each experience love and heartbreak and end up growing up in their own individual ways.

It is very clear that the author has extensively researched her subject and there are some real life characters included, although most are fictional but based on real life (for example, one character is based on Buster Keaton and his family). It made for an interesting and informative read, and I do feel that it gave a lot of insight into what is essentially an unstable profession. What I liked about the sisters was their very believable love and support for each other – each had their own talent and personality and they all complemented each other.

While overall I enjoyed this book, I would say I liked it rather than loved it. I would recommend it, but with some hesitation as I feel that if historical fiction is not a genre you would normally enjoy, this is not a book which is going to change your mind.

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In 1968, in a small town in Labrador, Canada, Treadway and Jacinta Blake have a child.  But they find that their baby has both male and female genetalia, and make the difficult decision that their child should have surgery.  They raise him as their son and call him Wayne.  Only Treadway, Jacinta and a friend named Thomasina know the truth and Wayne is not told.  However, as Wayne grows, he discovers an emotional part of himself – his female character, who he calls Annabel, after Thomasina’s deceased daughter.

As Wayne grows older, he and the three adults who share the secret are all affected in different ways, and each faces their own struggle to come to terms with the truth.

When I started this book, I was not sure whether I would like it or not, but as I read on, it pulled me in, and I found compelled to read more about Wayne and his family.  The writing is spare, and very beautiful in parts, with the loneliness that the four main characters each feel reflected in the remote and sparsely populated land where they live.

Each character’s struggle manifests itself in different ways, as the book takes us through Wayne’s childhood, school years and beyond.  In many ways, very little happens, but there is so much strangeness in the normalcy of their lives, contrasted with the unusualness of Wayne’s body.  The story is haunting in parts, and I really felt that all of the characters were realistically and believably drawn; sometimes their behaviour seems questionable, but it’s hard not to wonder what any other ordinary person would do in their situation.

It’s hard to believe that this was a debut novel – it was so emotive and yet under-stated, and treated Wayne’s condition (for want of a better word) with delicacy and compassion.  A book which I would definitely recommend.

 

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