The Wonder has a dancer's grace
By Diana Evans. Bond Street Books, 320 pp, $32.95, hardcover
The question is, have you found your “thing”? Have you found your passion, that something you were born to do? If so, how do you keep hold of it? How do you keep from becoming—shudder—ordinary? These are the burning preoccupations that fuel Diana Evans's lushly imaginative second novel The Wonder and its cast of dancers, musicians, party people, wayward fathers, angry mothers, and one young houseboat dweller who, truthfully, “could spend all day reading magazines”. Oh, and while everybody's figuring things out, why not pass a nice spliff around between friends?
In 2005, Brit writer Evans first tapped into who-am-I hang-ups in her debut novel, 26a, a seductive trip into the odd, dreamy world of identical twin sisters. This time the former dancer has Vaslav Nijinsky and Alvin Ailey on the brain—and in the fictional person of “floaty”-footed virtuoso Antoney Matheus. Antoney was the Jamaican-born choreographer and lead dancer of the Midnight Ballet, an all-black troupe that stormed London's 1960s dance scene—until he mysteriously vanished.
On Antoney's trail decades later is his son, Lucas, man-child music journalist and denizen—with sister Denise—of a rotting narrowboat on the Grand Union Canal. Evans tries to give the likably lost Lucas some authorial lovin', but—sorry, kid—her writer's heart beats fastest for jeté-ing daddy, making his skimpily defined boy seem suspiciously like a handy plot device.
Evans pays rapt, lovely attention to dance—from young artists moving through a condemned church, backed by the music of Paul Robeson, Felix Mendelssohn, and Ray Charles, to Antoney hearing an audience's applause like “water fizzing on onions” in his mother's frying pan. And her exuberant tour across 40 years of multiracial London shows intimate fondness for these 'hoods: “There were fragments”¦of the Sahara Desert and the Irish Sea, the Panama Canal and the music box of Kingston, and the happy and terrible commotion that had developed from this was that you could find a good party as easily as you could a good fight.”
“Did he live his life limitlessly?” Lucas wonders of Antoney, who feared that family equalled a “pinned-down existence”. These Londoners aren't the only ones trying to figure out if that can be done. Like Nijinsky, they’re just a tad higher off the ground than some of us.