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Tent of Blue

by Rachael Preston

Tent of Blue is an ambitious debut novel from Hamilton writer Rachael Preston. The primary narrative strand follows 15-year-old Anton in Vancouver in 1952. His mother, Yvonne, a dance instructor, rules with a merciless lack of understanding. Anton, crippled with a clubfoot, finds himself drawn to a downstairs neighbour, a First World War pilot now confined to a wheelchair and held a virtual prisoner by his daughter. Together Anton and the ex-pilot begin to plot an escape to Salt Spring Island.

The other narrative follows Yvonne through her youth in England, in the years prior to and during the Second World War. A quiet girl who dreams of becoming a dancer, Yvonne nurses, and eventually escapes, her alcoholic and abusive mother (a dance-hall bawdy dancer), falls in love with a Russian ballet dancer (Anton’s father), and becomes ensnared by Harold, a criminal impresario who follows Anton and Yvonne when they try to escape to Canada.

Preston’s rich and vivid evocation of the two main characters and their vastly differing milieus is crucial to the novel’s themes: Yvonne and Anton’s relationships with their mothers (not to mention their absent fathers) mirror one another, while the backstage sequences of Yvonne’s music-hall past provide a fascinating counterpoint to Anton’s furtive adolescent longings. Preston shifts easily between the narrative strands, never allowing one to overshadow the other.

Preston’s narrative reach does occasionally exceed her grasp. The two storylines, while thematically unified throughout, fail to coalesce at the novel’s conclusion. The closing chapters also fail to live up to the tension so carefully built up earlier in the novel.