Thursday 15 February 2024

Blog Tour: The Sleeping Beauties, Lucy Ashe

This review is part of the blog tour for the novel. Thank you to Random Things Tours and Magpie Books for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

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It’s 1945 and Rosamund Caradon is escorting the last of the evacuees that she has cared for during the war back to London, her daughter Jasmine enjoying her last chance to boss them around. Their journey back to London is disrupted when Briar Woods, a young ballet dancer, chooses their carriage to travel in. The children are delighted, having taken some basic ballet classes during their stay at Gittisham Manor, but Rosamund is suspicious. Why choose their carriage, noisy with excited children, when there are plenty of empty spaces? Her discomfort around Briar only grows as she encourages Jasmine to increasingly enter her world. Why is Briar so insistent that they become close, and why does she seem hostile to Rosamund?

The early chapters set up the scenario in a way that the reader is unsettled by Briar, seeing her through Rosamund’s eyes, but also have reason to suspect Rosamund may be being overly cautious. She repeatedly mentions how she’d like to be able to stay in the safety of the grounds of Gittisham Manor with Jasmine, away from the world. Could it be that the bustle of London and the sad memories it holds for her are influencing her response to this young woman who is being nothing but accommodating? The focus then shifts to Briar and her history and we follow her for the majority of the book with a few different time jumps to drip feed her story. 

Alongside her friends Martha and Vivian, Briar is a dancer with the Sadler’s Wells Ballet. We get a sense of the wonderful camaraderie between them, an intimacy from living and dancing together. You feel the excitement and promise of young lives, living on their own for the first time, travelling the country and meeting exciting new people. Unfortunately, this comes with a dose of heartache for some, and difficult situations that will have far-reaching consequences. We are reminded that although these young women seem to have freedom and independence, the age they’re living in is still very much stacked against them, and they are held to a very different standard than the men they encounter.

The fictional lives of Briar and her friends are intermingled with famous names from the ballet world (Margot Fonteyn, Ninette de Valois, and Robert Helpmann to name but a few) and events from the company’s history. They travel to the Hague as it’s on the brink of invasion from Germany, a difficult chapter from the past where fictional tragedy is inserted. Ashe seamlessly blends fact and fiction, and ballet fans will enjoy the references to well known figures and productions. There is no shying away from the challenges of being a professional dancer, especially during a time of war and rationing, but the splendour of their production of The Sleeping Beauty as they return to the Royal Opera House stands in stark contrast to the heartbreak of the characters.

This is a story of secrets and an examination of what it means to be a mother. It considers how the choices you make when young can have impacts far beyond what you can envisage at the time. It is a heartfelt, well researched novel. The ballet environment that forms the setting is enjoyable but the heart of the story could happen with any backdrop. The characters are well drawn and believable, and you’re left wishing you could see more of how the revelations play out. A great read, I’ll be going back and reading Ashe’s debut.

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