The Ghost Theatre, Mat Osman’s second novel, is the story of two young people who meet on the rooftops of Elizabethan London. One of them is Shay, a teenage girl who dresses as a boy and belongs to a community of bird-worshippers. As the novel opens, Shay has released some caged birds from captivity in a shop and is being chased by the angry owner; with the instincts of a bird herself, she flees upwards to the roof and here she has her first encounter with Nonesuch. Taking his name from Henry VIII’s grand palace, Nonesuch claims to be the abducted son of a great lord, forced into performing at the Blackfriars Theatre, dressing as a woman to play leading female roles such as Cleopatra.
As Shay begins to fall in love with Nonesuch, she helps him to create the Ghost Theatre, a troupe of young actors who stage special plays in secret locations all over London. But it is another talent of Shay’s – her ability to tell fortunes – that brings her to the attention of Queen Elizabeth I and leads her into danger.
Mat Osman is the brother of the author and TV presenter Richard Osman and also the bassist in the British rock band Suede. I haven’t read his first novel, The Ruins, and had no idea what to expect from this one, but I can tell you it’s a very unusual book – not purely historical fiction but not quite fantasy either. It’s set in a city we can recognise as the London of the late Elizabethan period – there are outbreaks of plague, attempted rebellions, references to popular Elizabethan sports such as cock-fighting and bear-baiting – but there are also some imagined elements. As far as I know there was no community of Aviscultans living in Birdland and predicting the murmurations of starlings!
I have to be honest and say that this book wasn’t really for me. Perhaps because of the blend of alternate history with real history, it didn’t have the strong period feel I prefer – the dialogue was too modern, for example. I also found it quite difficult to focus on the plot; the imagery and descriptions were lovely but slightly distracting and sometimes I read several pages without really absorbing any of the words. If I had to compare this book to anything, it would be Megan Campisi’s The Sin Eater, another novel set in an alternate Elizabethan world and which I had some similar problems with. Incidentally, there is a sin eater in Osman’s novel too, although only mentioned in passing!
It would seem that Osman’s own love of music has influenced this story, with a lot of emphasis placed on the power of song, performing on stage and entertaining an audience. The novel as a whole is imaginative, creative, dreamlike and completely original. I wish I had been able to enjoy it more, but the right reader will love it.
Thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.
This is book 16/50 read for the 2023 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.