Lucas and Denise have been brought up by their grandmother on a canal boat in west London, after the death of their parents. Now they are in their 20s, and their grandmother Toreth is gone. Denise is a practical and responsible young woman, getting on with her job as a florist, but her younger brother Lucas is a dreamer, still trying to establish what he wants to do with his life, and increasingly distracted by trying to find out more about his identity, about who his parents were, especially his father.
In The Wonder, Diana Evans alternates between Lucas' story set at the end of the 1990s, and what happened to his parents. Antoney's story is set in Notting Hill of the 50s and 60s, where he settles with his mum after coming from Jamaica as a teenage boy. He stumbles across Oscar who runs a dance school in the basement of a church, and the dancers come together in a troupe called the Midnight Ballet. Under Antoney's leadership, they tour and do well for a time but there are lots of pressures and differences pulling the group apart.
This novel is not very tightly plotted, rather it is built up as a series of portraits of the characters - Antoney, Oscar, Carla (mother of Lucas and Denise), The Wonder, Simone and various others. One chapter contains bios of each member of the Midnight Ballet. Many of them are black, from various backgrounds (London born, from the Caribbean and from several African countries). The writing is beautiful and atmospheric, and I found the earlier part of the story much more vivid and memorable than the present day one. Antoney is a man with big dreams, but he is also flawed - he lets Carla down repeatedly and by the time Lucas is born they are estranged (this is no secret or spoiler, it is quite obvious at the start of the book).
Diana Evans was a dancer before she was a writer, and although I know very little about dance other than reading ballet school stories as a child, I found her descriptions of dancing and her portrayal of the competing ambitions of the dancers really compelling. I also found her cast of characters interesting and finished the book still wanting to know more about some of them. I enjoyed this look at a part of black history in London I haven't read much about before.
I thought this was a very good read and hope to read Diana Evans' debut novel 26a soon.
This review originally appeared at www.thebookbag.co.uk
Format: Paperback 314 pages
Publisher: Vintage August 2010
ISBN: 978 0099 47905 5
RRP £7.99, currently on sale at Amazon for £5.99