The last book I read with a ballet theme was Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes. At the time, it inspired me to dream of wearing a tutu and pointe shoes and learning to dance. If I’d read The Turnout first, I think I’d have wanted to pursue another, safer hobby – like parachute jumping or parkour, maybe.
Megan Abbott’s take on the world of ballet is anything but sugar coated. Instead, prepare yourself for a story told with such dark intensity that you feel as if you’re reading it under the covers by sputtering torchlight. A sense of brooding menace and cloying claustrophobia exudes from the pages. There’s nothing cosy about this one.
Sisters Dara and Marie Durant have been dancers since they could walk, trained by their glamorous mother who founded the Durant School of Dance in an unnamed small town in the US. When their parents died in a road accident, the sisters took over the running of the school, helped by Charlie, who is Dara’s husband and was once the school’s most prized pupil until injury put paid to his ballet career.
As the book begins, the sisters are girding their loins for the most drama-laden part of their year – it’s time to start work on the annual performance of that Christmas classic The Nutcracker. First they need to pick the pupils who will take the starring roles, in particular Clara, which is highly sought-after by the more experienced young dancers. And we are talking teenage girls, so there’s soon a toxic combination of backbiting and bullying being directed at Bailey Bloom, who is revealed as this year’s choice.
So there’s quite an atmosphere building in the ramshackle studios even before disaster strikes – a fire devastates part of the building and Dara, Marie and Charlie, a team close knit to the verge of obsession, must let another into their midst. It is builder Derek, and he is about to turn their lives upside down in ways that have nothing to do with the upheaval of construction work.
Derek is a big, bold, arrogant man, a cuckoo in the nest who upsets the equilibrium in every way possible. He and his team start knocking down walls and using noisy power tools as Dara and Marie try desperately to coach their young dancers in far from ideal conditions. He keeps asking them to sign paperwork for the insurance company and is prone to turning up at very odd times of the day. He also has his sights set on Marie, and soon she has her sights set on him too.
Suddenly the Durrants’ life is thrown into turmoil, and Megan Abbott skilfully creates an ever-more-claustrophobic atmosphere that is both unsettling and intriguing. As she turns the thumbscrews, you’ll find yourself becoming increasingly worried about what may be revealed on the next page… and the next… and the next.
Where The Turnout falls down for me is in the characterisations. Dara, Marie and Charlie are all beautifully rendered, but try as I might I could not warm to any of them. It’s a writing tactic that definitely keeps readers on their toes – no pun – but I was longing to find someone to root for in all of the madness and mayhem that ensues. There is precious little light to be found as Abbott plumbs the depths of relationships, love and sibling rivalry to an at times uncomfortable degree.
The Turnoit is twisted and unsettling, and turns the spotlight into a behind the scenes world that many will know nothing about. From the wilful abuse of pointe shoes to the venomous backbiting of the fledgling performers, on the face of it, it appears to be a place that few would want to inhabit. The hordes of parents who take their kids to dance classes each week may beg to differ with me on that one though!
You’ll find more behind-the-scenes drama in Louise Beech’s spookily compulsive I am Dust.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars