The Little Shadows by Marina Endicott
Allen & Unwin $36.99

The Belle Auroras. They're three sisters, Aurora, Bella, Clover (note the initials), who sing and dance their way to some vaudeville success and some personal tragedies in pre-World War I United States and Canada. Does that sound lukewarm? If so, it's how I feel about this frequently evocative, constantly clever, intermittently satisfying novel.

It's 1912. Pneumonia has carried off the teenage trio's brother. Suicide has carried off their father. Their mother, Flora, once "the best fancy dancer from Ottawa to Corpus Christi", is down to her last $20. After humiliating auditions in unheated halls, she gets the girls into a touring troupe that takes them to a string of provincial theatres ranging from the dire to the dismal.

For five years and 500 pages, we track them through seduction, triumphs and top billings, too much sherry, meeting the stuffy Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, being stuck in "the North Pole city" of Edmonton for 16 months. The darkness of the Great War invades the glitter of the theatre, though everyone knows the conflict will "be over very soon".

As a documentary of Edwardian popular theatre, The Little Shadows is encyclopaediac and often absorbing. Endicott leaves no act unstoned. Individual performances of individual songs - Buffalo Girls, After The Ball, Daddy Wouldn't Buy Me A Bow-Wow - are described at length. Excessive length, you may feel.


But yes, it's intriguing to read about Madame Minou and Her Living Statuary; Maximilian the Bird Magician; the dogs who cheat and steal like humans; the Knockabout Ninepins, with the father who holds his son upside down and uses him like a broom. You sense that we're also meant to see the siblings as emblems of their time and type. However, the fascination with details means that a bigger picture seldom shapes.

Gorgeous, vulnerable Aurora, watchful, pensive Bella and sensual, spoiled Clover are vivid creations, but not always clearly differentiated, in spite of Aurora's habit of throwing up before stepping onstage, Bella's flair for slapstick, and Clover's eye for the wrong man.

You'll find the writing either rich and poetic or lush and irritating. Adjectives rule: "Silver-shelled footlights snap a scalloped arc of light on to the main curtain. Fresh red velvet: crimson lake, bright blood, the colour of love." There's a lot of this. A lot.

There are wonderfully funny sex scenes with unsettling analyses of male performance.

There's an unexpected, affecting coda. But its success as fiction? I suspect a producer might murmur, "We'll let you know."

David Hill is a Taranaki writer.