Fresh Blood

Name: Tina Jackson

Title of Book: The Beloved Children

'...revelations come as rapidly as disappearing ace cards and rabbits from the maestro’s hat. '

It’s been 60 years since Chrysanthemum first trod the boards with her when old chum Rose turns back up on her doorstep. Back in the dying days of World War II, they were part of an act called The Three Graces, along with the beautiful Orage. They joined a memorable cast at the Fankes’ Music Hall in the northern mill town where Chryssie still lives, each of them escaping from a different kind of stifling domesticity. For Chrissie it was her domineering mother Muriel, for Rose the sprawling chaos of her multiple siblings and for Orage… well Orage is a mystery on two shapely legs. Together the girls help each other to come out of their shells and find their true destinies on the stage.

They are assisted by wardrobe mistress Delores, a formidible Bearded Lady, and her sidekick Janna, aka Anna Ludmilla Ivanovska, a Russian émigré with a seemingly enchanted singing samovar. When an amorous indiscretion by Chryssie sees them turfed out of their wretched digs, Delores takes Chryssie and Janna takes Rose to live with them in their caravans in the woods – Orage having wasted no time in finding herself a fancy man to take care of her. Here they learn other, older mysteries and skills that will come in handy when Rose falls under the spell of devilishly handsome Mervin the Magus and becomes part of his magic act. When the bliss of their rackety existence is shattered and the trio are forced to scatter, the secrets buried within this secret glade will take Chrissie and Rose the rest of their lifetimes to unearth and untangle.

The fiction debut from journalist Tina Jackson is both spellbinding and immersive. It joins an elite club of novels – Angela Carter’s Wise Children, Kathryn Dunn’s Geek Love, Harry Crews’ The Gypsy’s Curse and Joolz Denby’s Stone Baby – that truly get inside the world of performing outsiders variously known as carnies, freaks, Vaudeville – or in this northern Forties setting, Music Hall. As adept in close-up magic as some of her cast, she effortlessly conjures back a long lost world of bearded ladies, male impersonators, aging comedians and shabby ventriloquists, all dolled up in make-do-and-mend glamour and alive with the smells of exotic perfumes, mothballs and pipe tobacco, the rustle of peach silk dressing gowns and the twitching of waxed moustaches. In this world of smoke and mirrors, nobody is quite who they seem and betrayal and murder just a kiss away.

The vivid setting and beauty of Jackson’s prose is only part of the enchantment. The author has also woven an intricate and compelling plot in which revelations come as rapidly as disappearing ace cards and rabbits from the maestro’s hat. Every fresh reveal tells us something new and unexpected about each character, so the multiple layers of connections and secrets between them all are gradually – and satisfyingly – revealed. The only disappointing thing about this whole dazzling illusion is when it finally has to come to an end. This was a world I never wanted to come out of!

Reviewed by: C.U.

CrimeSquad Rating

Fresh Blood Questionnaire

1) I absolutely loved this book and had the sense this was not a story you had really made up, that you were perhaps weaving some friends’ or family history into the tale. Does my crystal ball tell true?
I am so delighted that you enjoyed it. Thank you. The story does feel very real to me and I’ve lived with these characters for a long time. Nick Triplow described the book as ‘carny noir’, which I love, and I’ve long had a sideline as a variety performer and dancer. The storyline originally developed from a number I put together a long time ago that involved an aged Pelham puppet opening a toybox. Some of the characters that emerged from it were more fully formed than I had realised and didn’t want to go back in their box. So that was the start. They’re very familiar types to me – family members and many friends have been and are part of this world of show people and theatricals. ‘The Beloved Children’ is fiction of course but there are bits and scraps of stories that I’ve woven in just like any writer would do with the rags and tatters and things they find along the way.
2) You have got three wonderful leading ladies here: Chrysanthemum, Rose and Orage. The story is told in flashback from Chryssie and Rose in the present, and the curtain opens on how they meet at an audition for an act called The Three Graces at Fankes’ Music Hall. What are the main things we should know about each of them?
That they’ve all got, or get, secrets! And though I’m not going to divulge them and spoil the story, they find out that a rackety old musical hall theatre is the place where they can discover themselves. They’re at that borderland between adolescence and adulthood that’s all about becoming, which is exciting, and lends itself to drama. They’re very different young women but they go through a lot together and learn about friendship and the family you chose.
3) The setting is a northern mill town, towards the end of World War II – a time and a place I find endlessly fascinating. What was it that drew you towards this era and location? Is this also a part of your own history?
My family comes from the North of England. I wrote a book about local women’s lives and their struggle for the vote – working class women like the ones in my family – and discovering the social history of a time that’s still within living memory and yet a world away from our lives now was enthralling - the grit and glamour and the liberation for women of being freed from domesticity because the workforce needed them. It’s in our collective memory too, as if we know that period, but in a dreamlike way, as if we’re seeing it through a magic lantern lens. The psychogeography of those classic Northern cityscapes, with rows of terraces dominated by the mills and factories, and the humour, and the grit, and the getting on with it – I love it, all of it.
4) They are dressed and mentored by a couple of older women, mainstays of the Music Hall who each has their own mystery about them. Costume mistress Dolores is the Bearded Lady and her sidekick Janna, aka Anna Ludmilla Ivanovska, a Russian émigré with a mysterious singing samovar. They take the Graces under their collective wing and into their caravans in the woods when the girls are booted out of their digs in town by the sort of wretched landlady pivotal to this era. As the rich storyline unfurls, we find that the stories of the older women are entwined with their young protégées. Where did these two marvelous characters spring from and what should we know about them too?
Janna and Dolores definitely come out of my experience of show life, and of all the characters in the book, they’re the most real to me. Dolores is a carny lioness, and as older women she and Janna live their lives entirely on their own terms – they may seem eccentric to other people but in their world they absolutely have agency. I wanted this to be a book where people who often appear in other people’s stories as colourful characters on the sidelines are put centre stage where they belong. There are countless stories about people from the everyday world running away to join the circus, but what if that was your home? In this book people who are often seen as outsiders, and ‘othered’, are central to the story – Janna and Dolores live outside conventional society and they are strong, resourceful, self-defined, and in control of their narratives.
5) The whiff of sulphur in the plot comes from two things: intermittent newspaper reports about vanishing showgirls and the saturnine presence of Mervyn the Magus, the devilishly handsome magic act, who draws Rose into his act and puts her under his spell. You go into quite some detail about how some of his illusions are achieved – are you a member of the Magic Circle yourself?
I am not, and I’ve made his tricks up – but I’ve done a lot of research. If you’re writing a novel about show, you need to create illusions and they need to be grounded in understanding of how these things might be achieved. There are all sorts of theatrical devices woven into the way the story is told – illusion is central to the storytelling as well as the story.
6) Was Mervyn based on anyone in particular – he reminds me of a more demonic Mr Squales from Norman Collins’ London Belongs To Me or one of Patrick Hamilton’s murderous cads – are those the sort of books you enjoy reading?
I do love those books and that kind of storytelling but I didn’t base Mervyn on anyone in particular. He started life because things get dark in this book, the plot needed a baddie and magicians by their very nature are all about trickery, so it was fun amplifying that into his handsome devilry and as you say, adding a whiff of sulphur to his illusions.
7) Further wonderful characters abound in Chairman William Fankes, aka His Gillpots, his son Maurice aka Young Mister Fankes, male impersonators Dickie and Dora, Albert Emery the aging comedian, Varney the Venrtiloquist (I love the way these latter two recall stars of Seventies small screen, Dick and Reg respectively, not to mention Young Mister Grace) and Stella Maris, the not-so-silver-tongued diva. All their dialogue is peppered with confidently rendered Polari, another thing that makes the book feel so authentic. How important to you was it to get all this kind of detail right?
Because there are elements in the book that ask the reader to suspend disbelief, it was vital to root it all in as authentic a world as possible – so the detailing was vital. Part of the joy of writing this book was the research, and the devil really is in the detail. It mattered immensely that it was right, even to the names of lipsticks and hairstyles and the kind of china they might use. I wanted to create the theatre as a believable world in itself, and it needed to feel as real as I could make it so that the unreal elements felt real too.
8) I almost feel that ‘The Beloved Children’ has already been a film made by Ealing Studios, directed by Robert Hamer and starring the likes of Googie Withers, Margaret Rutherford and Alistair Sim. Who would be your ideal cast – either from today, or if you could use the Time Tunnel to get your ideals?
Kathy Burke for Dolores – salty and beady and terrifying and comical and magnificent. She’d be able to make you smell the muck and hear that fairground twang. I’d bring Maria Ouspenskaya back from the great beyond for Janna – fittingly spooky, tiny and fierce. Wonderful Florence Pugh for Chrysanthemum – as Midsommar proved, she’s stunning, she can do bewildered ingénue but also wild and sensual, which would be perfect.
9) How has this year treated you, creatively? You have managed to publish your debut novel despite the Corona madness but have you managed to carve out much more time for any further creativity?
Just before lockdown I was going great guns with a new book. I’d written one of the voices – the returned spirit of a rackety prostitute from a family of dodgy clairvoyants and herbalists. So I thought I’d be able to crack on with the other voice, a suffragette arsonist, but she’s been very elusive. I got her wrong at first by reading Barbara Pym and thinking she might be a bit like one of her fantastic spinsterish characters, but she isn’t. She’s an avenging angel, fiery and angry and splendid – and I’m none of those things. Every now and then I manage a bit of her, but it hasn’t been a massively productive time, though I did write a longish short story, ‘Pigs’ Arseholes and the Copper Pan’, which was about Janna and Dolores. It was published by Fahrenheit Press in their limited edition Fahrenzine series, which was definitely a creative highlight of the year.
10) Are you a fan of crime fiction? If so, which three crime novels would you like with you if stranded on a desert island?
From The Moonstone on, I love fiction that deals in secrets and concealment, so of course I’m a massive fan of crime, and more particularly, noir fiction and writing that blurs the boundaries between crime and other genres. That’s one of the reasons I’m so made up to be published by Fahrenheit Press, because all their books have an individual take on noir. I’m partway through my fellow debut Fahrenheit author Paul Steven Stone’s ‘Souljourner’, so I’d have to take that – it’s dazzling, karmic noir. I’ll have Nick Triplow’s Frank’s Wild Years – he’s the unheralded Joe Strummer of noir and this soulful, South London-set tale of crime and redemption should be far, far better known. And if it’s alright with you I’ll be including one of yours. It’s hard to choose between your books because every one of them has resonated with me but, Cathi Unsworth’s ‘The Singer’ perhaps most of all in conveying an underworld of flawed and beautiful outsiders. So that’s the one I’ll be re-reading on my desert island.