In this second novel about different generations of British entertainers, family secrets loom large, as they did in Stace’s debut Misfortune (2005); Stace is the pseudonym of singer/songwriter John Wesley Harding.
First, in the early 20th century, there was Evie Fisher, the premier ventriloquist of her time. Her son Joe, another ventriloquist, became famous when he entertained the troops during World War II. Joe’s daughter Frankie is a stage actress, and her teenage son George also seems destined for show business. That’s simple enough, but Joe’s dummy is also called George; the two Georges get alternate chapters, and when you throw in Joe’s wife Queenie, her second husband Reg (Joe was killed in WWII) and Frankie’s sister Sylvia (sshh, she’s only her half-sister), confusion sets in. When you add the mystery of George’s father (a married man, died in a car accident, never mentioned), confusion reigns. Something went badly wrong in Stace’s conception, to the extent that we never know whether he’s taking a lighthearted look at an obscure corner of vaudeville or doing a serious study of the toll secrets take on a family. Nor is it clear why so much attention is given to George’s unhappy years in the 1970s at a boarding school (whose arcane details will create more confusion for American readers), though his friendship with a depressed handyman there will become important in retrospect. George the human makes a big discovery when he unscrews the legs of George the dummy and finds some letters from his grandfather Joe to his one true love Bobbie, a ventriloquist and drag artist; Joe was a closeted homosexual forced into marriage by the scheming Evie. The discovery sends George into his own depression. This all seems pretty serious, but when at the end George confronts Frankie with an even more shattering discovery (his father’s true identity), his mother murmurs apologies, the moment passes lightly and attention shifts to Joe’s and Bobbie’s dummies united, whimsically, in a museum.
An unconvincing mishmash.