Described as "Little Women meets Water for Elephants" and as "a novel about art and women, and personal fulfilment and the thrill of performing", Marina Endicott's The Little Shadows is a nicely chunky 500 pager which tells the story of "three sisters making their way in the world of vaudeville before and during the First World War. Setting off to make their fortune as a singing act after the untimely death of their father, the girls, Aurora, Clover and Belle, are overseen by their fond but barely coping Mama.
"The girls begin with little besides youth and hope but evolve into artists as they navigate their way to adulthood among a cast of extraordinary characters - charming charlatans, unpredictable eccentrics, and some who seem ordinary but have magical gifts.
"Marina Endicott lures us onto the brightly lit stage and into the little shadows that lurk behind the curtain, and reveals how the art of vaudeville - in all its variety, madness, melodrama, hilarity and sorrow - echoes the art of life itself."
I haven't read Marina Endicott's earlier novel Good to a Fault which was shortlisted for the Giller Prize and won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Canada and the Caribbean, but I've certainly read very good things about it, so I was keen to see her new book which will be out in the UK early next month; here's how it begins:
" 'Keep moving,' Mama told them. 'You will only be cold if you are slow, and we must get on. He won't wait.'
So they went quickly over the half-frozen field, in gritty snow that crunched underfoot but stung on their cheeks, and rubbed like sand between their hats and collars. Three girls in a row behind one round-bundled woman, who bent to the wind and made good headway on short, flicking legs. Aurora slid between snowbursts, smooth-sailing as a swan over a white lake. Bella was the smallest, hurrying to warm her hand by tucking it into Mama's pocket; Clover behind them, slowest and least desirous of their destination.
Everything in the little town was whirling and bright, late-afternoon whiteness unusual here where it did not snow deeply, being too far west into desert. But they could see through the squall the brick building of the Empress Theatre, and the black frame around its door, and the white placard tacked up on the door:
Cleveland's Star Union Vaudeville
And now they could hear a plink-plink-plink timpani of notes with depth removed by distance, and a soaring, scooping voice doing arpeggios. Aurora felt her own voicebox contracting in time, one octave up, tenor to soprano, reaching and then cascading down..."
So the girls audition for Mr. Cleveland, and Marina Endicott introduces her characters in a vivid scene of backstage nerves, hopes and superstitions as they take their turn amidst a motley bunch of performers. There are the has-beens, the troupers, those on the up, the ones still doggedly touring the circuit just to make ends meet, and into this world of greasepaint and variety acts, silver-shelled footlights and dingy dressing-rooms come the three young girls. It's a promising beginning - a rich, warm, busy scene - and I look forward to reading on.