By George, By Wesley Stace

Not a bit wooden...
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The Independent Culture

The ventriloquist and his dummy, that peculiar simultaneous image of companionship and division, seem the least likely form of entertainment to have survived the media-saturated, psychologised last half-century. Yet loopy straightmen and their grinning sidekicks have been a staple of films from The Great Gabbo (1929) to Magic (1978). The latest series of America's Got Talent was carried overwhelmingly by a chubby ventriloquist and his chanteuse monkey, suggesting that a profession once decried as witchcraft continues to exercises some of its power.

Wesley Stace's engrossing second novel tells the story of two boys called George Fisher, one of whom is not a boy but a "boy", the name ventriloquists are said to prefer for their inanimate assistants. "Gorgeous, Garrulous George" – he takes the narrative reins for a good half of Stace's story – is the gift of Echo Endor, Thirties ventriloquism's brightest star, to her son Joe. Before long, having each passed up Joe's long-suffering wife in favour of a love altogether more esoteric, man and dummy go off to war, where they win brief and riotous acclaim as part of Ensa before a bomb ends their partnership.

Some years on, in the 1970s, 11-year-old George Fisher is packed off to a chilly boarding school with the ironical name of Upside. Brought up in a theatrical family, educated and indulged by his actress mother, a pair of aunts and his grandmother Evie – once Echo Endor, star ventriloquiste – George gets a book on voice-throwing and a set of diaries bequeathed by his grandfather Joe, and soon finds the antiquated rigours of school life paling in comparison with the secrets lurking in his family's past.

Stace deftly sketches the arcana of ventriloquism, the palely intimidating atmosphere of a provincial prep school and the chaotic backstage atmosphere of the Fisher family at the same time as cracking the whip over a compelling detective plot. As in his first novel, the luxurious mock-Dickensian melodrama Misfortune, he combines an old-fashioned delight in story and narrative texture with a psychologically acute modern sensibility. By George is as alert to the inward peculiarities of its characters and their chosen art as it is to the scripting of its drama – crucially, as it turns out, since such acuity enables the book to rise above an overcompressed and implausible final reel. George and his namesake are anything but wooden, and they should make deserved converts for a writer well worth watching.