Book review: The Wardrobe Mistress by Natalie Meg Evans

The Wardrobe Mistress by Natalie Meg Evans
The Wardrobe Mistress by Natalie Meg Evans

Mentally battered and bruised by six years of conflict, a young war widow steps on board a train in search of a new life… and determined to seek out answers to mysteries from her childhood.

However, she is on a collision course with a man whom she will love but who might never be hers, and a past that holds more dark secrets than she could ever have imagined.

The glittering world of the London theatre in the post-war period is the alluring stage set for a sumptuous new saga from Natalie Meg Evans, the award-winning author of The Dress Thief who spent five years working in London’s fringe theatre before turning to writing.

And there is no shortage of visual drama and rich choreographic detail in this compelling, multi-layered novel which takes readers on a thrilling journey through the bomb-scarred streets of London and the exciting backstage pressures of life in the theatre.

Twenty years ago, when she was aged five, Vanessa Quinnell visited the Farren Theatre in London with her actor father, Johnny, and was told in no uncertain terms that ‘the theatre is the best place in the world.’

Only months later, Johnny walked out of her life and did not come back. Her mother Ruth, who always loathed everything theatrical, never told Vanessa why her father had left their home in Kent.

Fast forward to London in 1945 and Vanessa is now a widow after her Spitfire pilot husband Leo Kingcourt was killed just two weeks after their wedding. Clutching a small golden key given to her in a mysterious inheritance, Vanessa is determined to find the truth of her past and senses that whatever it unlocks lies in the old Farren Theatre.

The pull of the Farren, an enchanted place steeped in memories of her father, is so strong that she applies for a job there as a wardrobe mistress and joins the backstage crew.

The theatre’s owner has recently died and it is now in the hands of his godson, Alistair Redenhall, a former Royal Navy commander who is still haunted by events under his watch during the war years.

Haughty, handsome Alistair is in a troubled marriage which he seems reluctant to end but his unexpectedness kindness has bowled over Vanessa. ‘Her heart was a vacant lot and he’d taken possession.’

With no experience and no budget for supplies, Vanessa must use her intuition to create beautiful costumes from whatever scraps of silk and thread survived the Blitz. It’s a seemingly impossible task, but a welcome distraction as she struggles to resist her feelings for Alistair.

Meanwhile, Vanessa starts digging into her past and what she discovers unravels family secrets sewn deep into the very fabric of the London theatre scene… but is she destined to repeat the same terrible mistakes her father made, and will she be unlucky in love again?

Evans has the gift to recreate the past in all its colour, intricate detail and atmosphere, and here we smell the greasepaint, feel the tension, hear the curtain calls and reach out to touch the elaborate costumes as we are swept up into the gregarious life of the book’s leading player, the Farren Theatre.

At the heart of the story are two people damaged by the war and eager to strike out into a brave new world but beset by the reverberations of past events, and secrets that have been hidden for over two decades.

Emotions run high and passions spill over as the past catches up with the present but, even then, all is not what it seems for Vanessa and Alistair, as Evans surprises us with a never-saw-it-coming twist in the tail.

Written with the author’s trademark descriptive flair, immaculate research and compelling evocation of time and place, The Wardrobe Mistress is a feast of drama, romance, suspense and intrigue, all guaranteed to tickle the taste buds of historical fiction fans.

(Quercus, paperback, £7.99)