Ventriloquism has not completely disappeared as a form of entertainment; Nina Conti and David Strassman are two currently successful performers. It's the traditional dummy that seems beyond help: the cheeky schoolboy perched on the vent's knee, head swivelling and mouth clapping open and shut. That's what selling out to all those cheap horror movies does, I suppose.
One such dummy – a ruddy-cheeked, winking and cheroot-smoking young chap named George – is at the heart of this novel, Wesley Stace's second after the well-received Misfortune. George is the bridge between two generations of the Fisher family, long-time stars of British variety. We first meet him in 1930, when he is collected from Romando Theatrical Properties of Henley by Evie Fisher, better known as the bill-topping ventriloquiste "Echo Endor" (her dummy, naturally, being "Narcissus").
George is her present to her son Joe on his 21st birthday, a nudge to encourage him towards his theatrical destiny. Yet we read about his ambivalence towards fame, mothers, and life in general in the words of his dummy, presented as George's "memoirs".
In the second strand we leap forward 40 years. It's 1973, and Joe's grandson George Fisher finds himself packed off to boarding school. He would much rather be schlepping around the provinces with his mother: actress and principal boy nonpareil, Frankie Fisher, who is Joe's daughter.
At this point, some 30 pages into the novel, I sketched out a genealogy of the Fishers: a tactic I recommend. But then the complexity of the Fisher family tree – some boughs fallen, some rotten, some apparently nailed on – is not a stumbling-block to enjoying the story, but its driving force.
We follow the two boys as they struggle to escape the influence of their domineering mothers, finding comfort in magic and ventriloquism. The similarity between the two narrative strands may be part of the book's structure but it does make it, for a time, hard going.
When George starts investigating the truth about Grandad Joe's death during the Second World War, and tracks down his dumb namesake, the pace picks up. The lovingly researched theatrical backdrop (it's no surprise to discover that the author's grandfather was a ventriloquist) fades away. And the Fisher family saga takes centre-stage for a thoroughly satisfying denouement under the appropriately clear skies of the Italian coast.
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