A slow-moving novel—perhaps appropriate since much of it takes place on a narrow boat moored in London's Little Venice neighborhood—ultimately driven by characters...and charming they can be.
At the center is Odeline Milk, an artiste and illusionist who aspires to become a mime. She has an impressive collection of books by and about Marcel Marceau, some in French, a language she doesn’t even understand. Her mother, Eunice, had a brief fling with Odelin, a clown with the Cirque Maroc, when the circus passed through Arundel, in southern England, years before, and it comes as no surprise that he is Odeline’s father. Shortly after Eunice’s death, Odeline moves to London to try to earn a living as a mime; she takes up residence on the narrow boat, appropriately called Chaplin & Company, though not named after that Chaplin—it turns out that its builder, whom we meet briefly in a flashback to the 1930s, was named Walter Chaplin. She meets an assortment of other wayfarers, vagabonds, political refugees and alcoholics, chief among them John Kettle, warden for the Little Venice Marina; Vera, a foreigner who works at the local barge cafe; and Ridley, the easygoing master of the narrow boat Saltheart. Odeline has a gig in Covent Garden, the theater district, but it turns out that the venue is actually a pub. The performance falls flat, though by the end of the novel, Odeline finds some success with a more receptive audience: children. Meanwhile, she decides to search for her father the clown, whom she’s idealized over the years. When they link up at the Cirque Maroc, she heartbreakingly realizes that, throughout her life, she’s surrounded him with an aura of illusion.
Fellowes drives the novel at a leisurely pace and lets the characters unfold gradually and quirkily until we get to know them well.