Book Reviews: Thursday’s Children & Listen to the Nightingale by Rumer Godden

First published on 26th May, 2013 in The Star

THIS week, two ballet novels by Rumer Godden. Thursday’s Children and Listen to the Nightingalewere out of print, but are two of the 15 titles that Virago Books has acquired for its Modern Classics list.

I’m not sure if girls still love reading ballet stories. A couple of years ago, I had a conversation with a group of young ballet students in a local dance school and was dismayed to find that none of them had heard of Noel Streatfeild’s classic Ballet Shoes. They liked reading but they didn’t read ballet stories. I suppose it was presumptuous of me to assume that just because they danced, they would like to read about dancing. Perhaps only those of us who love ballet but don’t actually dance need to live vicariously through the characters in ballet books.

I love all Noel Streatfeild’s books that have anything at all to do with ballet, or any of the performing arts. Ballet Shoes is her most famous work, but I prefer Curtain Up (re-issued as the slightly abridged Theatre Shoes) because there is much more in it about the technical side of learning to dance, act and sing.

Thursday’s Children and Listen to the Nightingale both paint very detailed pictures of children who dance ballet, and the world of the ballet school they attend: in both books it’s Queen’s Chase, a prestigious ballet school in London.

Thursday’s Children focuses on a boy, which makes a change as you must have noticed that most ballet novels are about girls: more girls than boys learn ballet, and I imagine more girls than boys like reading ballet stories. Like Billy Elliot (the film, and the inspired novelisation by Melvin Burgess) the lead character is a boy, Doone Penny, who loves ballet, but has to fight what often seems like a losing battle to study dance. His family is his worst enemy, in particular his spoilt older sister Crystal who also attends Queen’s Chase.

I think it’s interesting that the book opens at a point in Doone’s life when he is firmly established as a success at Queen’s Chase. I thought this would lessens the suspense because I knew from the start that Doone would succeed in achieving his dreams. However, as I read on and got caught up in his life, I could feel all his frustration, fear and anxiety, as well as his joy, excitement and pleasure, and I just couldn’t stop reading – I was frantic to know what happened – yes, even though I already knew the answer.

The protagonist in Listen to the Nightingale is more conventional: Lottie is a young girl whose life has revolved around ballet since she was born. Lottie’s mother was a ballerina who died having her, and the girl is raised by her Auntie, who is the wardrobe mistress of a small but critically acclaimed ballet company. Lottie wins a scholarship to Queen’s Chase, but is reluctant to leave her new puppy behind. She finally makes a decision, not realising how much it will change her life.

rumer Godden
Rumer Godden (10th December, 1907 – 8th November, 1998)

If you’ve read A Candle for St. Jude, you’ll recognise the references to Anna Holbein, who owns the ballet company Auntie works at. The staff of Queen’s Chase are there in both Thursdays Child and Nightingale (Nightingale was published in 1992, eight years after Thursday’s Children), but, sadly, there is no mention of Doone Penny in Nightingale, which I think is a lost opportunity. I would like to read more about Doone, and I wish there was at least one other book about both the children. They are such likeable and interesting characters – attractive, unusual, complex, and imperfect, and I would give my eye teeth to see them develop and grow. Well, unless someone comes along and write a couple of sequels (I think Adele Geras would be a good candidate), I shall just have to imagine how Doone and Lottie turn out. I will most definitely be re-reading Nightingale and Thursday’s Children for many years to come, just as often as I re-read my threadbare Streatfeilds.
Thursday’s Children and Listen to the Nightingale are published by Virago Books, with beautiful, new and striking covers. These books are part of Virago’s range of titles for young readers. Dark Horse is another Godden title that will join this list. There is no ballet in that book, just nuns and a horse, but like everything by Godden, it’s an excellent read. I can’t wait.

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