By George by Wesley Stace

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By George by Wesley Stace

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Eileen Shaw
Reviewed by Eileen Shaw
Summary: Wearing its research lightly, this book is an entertaining, often funny and genuinely moving story about a family working in vaudeville and variety in Britain from the 1930s up to and after World War II.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: January 2009
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099516156

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Self-described as a folk-noir singer (his chief influence is Bob Dylan), and better known as John Wesley Harding, Wesley Stace is a respected singer/songwriter, born in Britain, but now living in the United States. All the more surprising then, is his reincarnation as a writer, under his real name, and particularly as a writer who, with this novel, shows such brilliant understanding of the popular variety era of British theatre and television. Moving from the 1940s right up to the present day, this well-paced and entertaining novel has won both Richard and Judy backing and popular acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic.

Better known for his first book, the Booker-nominated Misfortune - about a boy raised as a girl by an eccentric aristocrat - his follow-up is every bit as emotionally satisfying and engrossing. Selected parts of this intriguing novel are narrated by a ventriloquist's doll, (and this conceit works beautifully, giving a unique, if somewhat sentimental, insight into history of ventriloquism) who shares the name George with his eventual owner, a young man raised by a family of overwhelming women, some of whom have a penchant for keeping secrets.

George is mostly brought up by his grandma as his mother is always away treading the boards, particularly at Pantomime time, where she is usually the principal boy - all legs and fluffy blonde hair. George hero-worships her, but the house is in thrall to his great-grandmother, Evie, who, in her youth was the great Echo Endor, whose vent-act was a by-word for entertainment in the 40s and 50s. This book straddles the decades but it is always clear where we are and who is the current protagonist.

George, the boy rather than the dummy, predominates and some of the best episodes tell of his exploits at the minor public school to which he is duly sent. This isn't the usual misery story, although George knows he doesn't belong there and spends most of his time reorganising the school library and reading the journals of his famous ventriloquist ancestor Valentine Vox, whose techniques prove frustratingly difficult and obscure. When he does find a means of throwing his voice it has distinctly destructive consequences.

George gradually tracks down the history of his family's involvement in vaudeville and variety in England and in wartime Egypt and Italy, on the trail of the devastating truth about his real father. Stace's wry humour is a plus in this nicely balanced tale that can move from satire to genuine feeling in a moment. He writes wonderfully well.

For further reading you could do a lot worse than The Land of Green Ginger by Noel Langley, which is more for reading aloud to children, but is tremendous fun and gives a taste of pantomime humour. Otherwise, read Sadie Jones's wonderful novel The Outcast for a devastatingly moving story of coming of age in the 1950s.

Many thanks to the esteemed publishers for sending By George for review.

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