Monday, September 6, 2010

Review of "Continental Revue" by Winifred Bambrick

Continental Revue, by Winifred Bambrick won the Governor-General's Award for Literary Merit in fiction for 1946. The novel depicts a circus revue that travels around Europe (mostly Britain and Germany) in 1938-1939. As Bambrick's biography in the Canadian Encyclopedia indicates, the author herself traveled in similar circumstances, so there is undoubtedly a biographical element to this novel.

Continental Revue is one of the more unique novels that I have read. Bambrick begins, appropriately, with a cavalcade of chracters. There are well over 20 characters of significance, but Bambrick mentions virtually every member of the revue. These brief character introductions are made within the context of the show, and it gives the reader a sense of the immense variety of the revue, even if it is unwieldy.

Fortunately, after the first third of the novel, Bambrick focuses more tightly on a small number of central characters and the love triangle the forms between Peter (an English artist), Kathi (an Austrian ballerina), and Tania (a Hungarian dancer/performer). Peter is captivated by Kathi's beauty and falls in love with her immediately and Kathi falls in love with him, at least in her own way. Throughout the novel, Bambrick emphasizes Kathi's otherworldliness and simplicity. It is never clear exactly how Kathi experiences love. In contrast to other characters, Kathi's thoughts and emotions are rarely revealed to the reader. Tania is a cunning, resourceful, beautiful woman who constantly seeks to position herself strategically in her career. She often serves simultaneously as the intermediary between and third wheel to Kathi and Peter. She falls in love with Peter, and tries to convince him to be with her instead. Indeed, Peter does seem to connect better with Tania, though he is wary (and at times fearful) of her power and manipulation. While Kathi is ethereal, Tania is immensely passionate, and Peter seems to vascillate between reason and passion. It makes for a compelling dynamic.

The coming war dominates the novel, and geopolitical tensions take centre stage near the end. Bambrick is at pains to show how the happy multiethnic, multinational revue is destroyed both due to internal and external tensions. Personal rivalries and international conflicts force splits in the company. Nazi policies cause problems for the non-German members of the revue, while at the same time, the large number of German members causes other countries to shun them.

Continental Revue is a very good novel. While the first third is disorienting, once it hits its stride, the novel really flies. It has compelling characters and weaves in the tension of coming war.