Review by Annabel
Mat Osman is best known as the bass guitarist of Suede, but he has also become a fine novelist. His first novel, The Ruins, which I reviewed here, was a rock’n’roll mystery with a lost album and a twin, opposite in character to his deceased brother, having to become his brother to find himself in the process. His second novel, although it retains the post-punk sensibilities of the first, is entirely different.
The Ghost Theatre is set near the end of the Elizabethan era, beginning in 1601. It follows the fortunes of two young people both about 15-years-old, Shay and Nonesuch, who meet and fall in and out of love in the world of the theatre and beyond.
We begin by meeting Shay, a messenger girl who is being chased across the roofs of London by Gilmour and his dogs. Just as she’s tiring and reaches a dead end, she is rescued by a boy who leads her to safety, he’ll later introduce himself as Nonesuch. For now he’s scrutinising her intently:
She knew what he’d be thinking: ‘What is this?’ She’d lost her cap somewhere, so her two wings of hair stuck up in tufts around her tattoo lines, and there were cuts on her next and shoulders. Her breasts were taped down, and she wore sailor’s culottes and buckle shoes. She’d heard all the questions – ‘Are you a boy or a girl?’ ‘What happened to your hair?’ Why are you dressed for the poorhouse?’ – so she set her face as hard as she could manage, her heart still racing, and tried to stop her legs trembling.
The boy kept examining her, and then shook his head as if to dislodge something.
‘So rude of me.’ He reached out a hand, like an adult.
‘Shay.’ She kept her voice as flat as possible, deepened it a little. The act was almost unconscious now.
He clasped his other hand over hers. ‘Well, hello, Shay. I’m Lucifer, the very Devil come to earth.’
It’s a great opening to the novel. She goes on to explain that Gilmour owned a bird shop, and he was after her for setting his birds free – again. Nonesuch, after dropping his Devil act, takes her eventually to the theatre, where he is the lead in a troupe of child actors run by Evans in Blackfriars. Every seat is taken that night, but they need a prompter, so Shay finds herself watching the spectacle from the prompter’s booth, sitting alongside effects girl Alouette.
Shay needs to go home though to look after her ailing father on their barge, but a side job as prompter would bring in much-needed extra pennies. It takes a while to get back to the marshes beyond Wapping from the theatre, and she’s just in time for the ‘Murmuration’. Shay’s tribe are Aviscultans, bird-worshippers, reading patterns in their flight – Shay learned this form of clairvoyance from her mother, whose readings were famous, but the people of Birdland, as their enclave is known, are persecuted. Her father Lonan, was a falconer, skills he passed onto Shay. His prize contract was to train Lord Eltham’s falcon, taking along Shay to teach her. Once Shay takes over, having persuaded Lord Eltham’s staff of her own credentials, she just loves to see Devana fly, and is devoted to the bird. You can probably guess what she’ll do in the end.
Meanwhile, back in the theatre, the beautiful and, it must be said, arrogant young actor Nonesuch is tiring of life on the London stage, and being hired out by Evans for other purposes, they’re effectively his slaves. He longs to escape and start a new form of performance, ‘guerilla theatre’ as Osman has called it, putting on pop-up shows. Evans (and Gillmour still) will be after them, but that doesn’t deter them, and soon the Ghost Theatre become a word-of-mouth sensation, particularly as the apprentices are rioting too. The Queen sends her ‘Swifts’ to put down the riots and the theatre troupe find themselves wound up in the politics of the situation.
However, soon they are forced out of the capital by plague and begin travelling, putting on shows where they stop, recalling Emily St John Mandel’s ‘Travelling Symphony’ in Station Eleven. We get to see a different side of the country outside the city. Encountering the anti-enclosures movement in the form of a travelling carnival called Cockaigne, the Ghost Theatre won’t survive this encounter, breaking up in rancour, and Shay, believing her love Nonesuch betrayed her, is imprisoned by the Commoners in a giant bird-cage and forced to be part of their show. We will, however, get back to London before the end of the novel for a fitting climax.
Osman’s deep research and attention to detail shine through on every page, bringing the Elizabethan underworld to life brilliantly. The atmosphere surrounding the theatre, the London rooftops that Shay runs her messages over, contrasts with the otherworldliness of the Hackney marshes – very Dickensian, that! The ‘Blackfriars Boys’ run by Henry Evans existed, whereas the Aviscultans appear to be Osman’s creation, but they’re fantastically well-portrayed. Osman has played with history’s timeline slightly to make it fit his narrative, but had I not read that elsewhere, I wouldn’t have known – and this is fiction, it’s allowed! Along the way, we meet the Queen, and John Dee her physician, as well as Sackerson the giant brown bear (who appears in The Merry Wives of Windsor). The supporting cast are all well-drawn, from the sympathetic portrayal of the rest of the theatre troupe to the evil villains that plague them, not forgetting the falcon, Devana. The teen romance of Shay and Nonesuch is at the heart of this novel and both the young leads have a certain mystery about them, Nonesuch being rumoured to have run away from an aristocratic family, and Shay with her tattoos and uncanny ability with birds. Ultimately, it is Shay’s story though; she is on nearly every page, a wonderful young protagonist.
This novel will undoubtedly be on my list for best of the year. A truly thrilling and beautifully crafted Elizabethan adventure, it might even top that list.
Annabel is a co-founder and editor of Shiny.
Mat Osman, The Ghost Theatre (Bloomsbury, 2023). 978-1526654403, 304pp., hardback.
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