Okay, after unfortunately finishing Station Eleven at the hotel, before I even got to the airport for the flight home, I needed something else for airport/airplane reading. It needed to be something more than ordinarily good because: airport, airplane. I actually do like flying, but I hate waiting in airports and even when you’re in the air, eventually looking out the window gets boring. This one also seemed suitable because it has a literary tone and after Station Eleven I was in the mood for that.
What I needed was a book that had received rave reviews from people whose taste matches mine. Thus, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club.
Jo, the firstborn, “The General” to her eleven sisters, is the only thing the Hamilton girls have in place of a mother. She is the one who taught them how to dance, the one who gives the signal each night, as they slip out of the confines of their father’s townhouse to await the cabs that will take them to the speakeasy. Together they elude their distant and controlling father, until the day he decides to marry them all off…
The Girls at the Kingfisher Club isn’t SFF at all; it’s a historical with fairytale echoes (Twelve Dancing Princesses, one of my favorites). It’s set in New York during the 1930s or thereabouts; the time of Prohibition and speakeasies, of feathered caps and unironic exclamations of “Swell!” This is by no means my favorite era for a historical. I greatly prefer venues much farther removed in time and space, such as Classical Greece or Rome. On the other hand, this story is so well told that I would have loved it no matter its setting.
By 1927 there were twelve girls who danced all night and never gave names, but by then the men had given up asking and called them all Princess.
“Hey, Princess, dance off your shoes? It’s the Charleston!”
The men would have called them anything they wanted to be called, Dollface or Queenie or Beloved, just to get one girl on the dance floor for a song. But in that flurry of short dresses and spangles and ribbon-tied shoes, Princess was the name that suited. It seemed magical enough, like maybe it was true.
Twelve sisters, from Jo, the eldest, through Lou, Doris, Ella, Araminta, Mattie and Hattie, Rebecca, Sophie, Rose and Lily, and Violet. I may have a few of the sisters a bit out of order, but it doesn’t matter much as some of them are nearly cyphers, there to fill out the count, with only slight nods toward individuality. The narrative moves back and forth through time a bit, but in the present-day story, Jo is twenty-seven and Violet is fourteen.
The thing is, twelve daughters aside, their father only ever wanted a son. He is angry and ashamed he’s only had daughters instead, so he keeps them imprisoned in the upstairs rooms of his house and pretty much ignores them. They’ve never had much to do with their mother – one of the younger sisters comments at one point that she only saw their mother four times before the mother’s death. They have even less to do with their father. Jo is occasionally summoned to his study, when he’s issuing orders to do with her sisters, but, get this, some of the younger ones have literally never seen him. Not that they want to. He’s pretty awful.
As a child, as a way of coping with her own bitter frustration and helping her sisters cope with theirs, Jo learns to dance and then almost at once teaches her sisters to dance. Then, to prevent her sisters from bolting from their tightly constrained life while they’re too young and helpless to possibly make their own way in the city, Jo organizes secret missions where they all sneak out of the house at night and go dancing at various clubs around New York. At every minute, they’re at risk of discovery. It’s hard to guess what awful thing their father would do if he found out.
That’s the basic scenario. You can see how the story must unfold. The sisters are friends and allies, but they aren’t Jo’s friends; they’re her responsibility. Jo is under a great deal of pressure; she holds her sisters under tight discipline, desperate to keep them safe. Lou, angry and bitter and always a hairsbreadth from disastrous rebellion, is her ally but also the most difficult sister. Ella has taken over the mothering role, the twins Hattie and Mattie are wild and mostly absorbed by their own twin relationship; Araminta is beautiful; most of the others I didn’t really keep track of.
Jo keeps track of all her sisters. All the time. Except in the end, when everything suddenly goes wrong. At that point, it’s Jo who gets them out, sends them scattering to the four winds, and finally loses track of them for the first time in her life. Talk about terror: for quite some time she has no idea what’s become of any of them. I will add here that the narration is omniscient and so the reader sometimes knows a good deal more than Jo, though not everything. I was a bit worried about the younger set of twins for a little while there.
I wasn’t worried about Lou, though. I was pretty certain that she would come out all right. I was pretty sure everyone one would come out all right, really. Spoiler: They do. There is plenty of tension in this story, but it doesn’t arise from a lot of doubt about the final outcome, or it didn’t for me.
There’s a little bit of romance, but primarily this is a story about family – a father gone terribly wrong, a helpless and absent mother, and most of all sisters who are each other’s friends and defenders. It’s a beautiful story, and once again I found myself amazed that Genevieve Valentne can write such claustrophobic stories and make them work for me. I’m definitely up for anything she’s written at this point. If you like historical novels where family bonds are far more central than romance, or beautiful writing, or stories that carry a strong fairytale echo, the you should definitely give this one a try.