Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, the most frequent piece of advice authors are given is to write what you know. Which is exactly what Lucy Ashe has done with her debut novel Clara & Olivia – a dark, suspenseful and unsettling story of obsession, perfection and sisterly love. Set in the early 1930’s, within the ultra competitive and ruthless world of ballet, the novel follows the titular sisters as they attempt to dance their way to the top.
At the recently opened Sadler’s Wells, twins Clara and Olivia rehearse their roles in the corps de ballet for Coppélia. They might not be the company’s star performers but they both aspire to be great – to be celebrated and noticed for their own merit and talent. Yet success means something different to each sister. Disciplined and dedicated, Olivia has moulded herself to be the perfect ballerina. She covets the prima ballerina role and she’s willing to make the painful sacrifices needed to achieve her dream. Clara is less disciplined but what she lacks in restraint she makes up for in boldness and charm.
As rehearsals intensify, the sisters increasingly feel as if they are being watched. Everything they’ve worked so hard to achieve is within their grasp but the life of a dancer is a precarious thing, fraught with injuries, fixations, superstitions and insecurities. There are people who prefer the idea of a ballerina – a perfect, graceful, lithe creature – to the actual person. And when they realise that the reality doesn’t fit the ideal, obsession spills over into tragedy.
Never has there been a lovelier figure, unchanging, unbroken by the pace of time. Her sightless eyes will not fade. A beautiful statue, preserved forever. He has watched her for so long, holding her in his gaze, locking her into position like a photograph.“
Clara & Olivia is billed as Black Swan meets The Red Shoes, and it certainly has the tense, dark and feverish vibe of those ballet themed films. The perspective is split between Olivia – who feels as if she exists in her sister’s shadow and doesn’t know if she’s good enough on her own – and Clara, whose restless, impetuous personality doesn’t suit the regimented world of professional ballet. Then there are two more perspectives: Samuel, a young and shy dance shoe maker at the renowned Freed, who’s admired and loved Olivia from afar but can’t muster the courage to talk to her, and Nathan, Clara’s discontented boyfriend, a struggling pianist who mourns the loss of his luminary child-prodigy status.
The story revolves almost entirely around Clara and Olivia, something that’s further reinforced by the chapters told from Samuel and Nathan’s perspectives. Just as the sisters are obsessed with dance, Samuel and Nathan have their own fixations, which range from harmless infatuations to more destructive fascinations. As these obsessions intensify, there’s a real feeling of the tension escalating and the characters tumbling towards a single moment that will bond them forever.
Ashe’s own experience as a young ballet dancer elevates the story above those written by authors who have to rely solely on research. There’s a palpable, lived-in feel to the novel that could only come from a writer who’s experienced the simultaneous joy, adulation and pain of ballet training. Ashe captures the life of a dancer perfectly – the terminology, the theatrical atmosphere, the relentless pursuit to be the best, the fear of not being good enough, the elation when your hard work and talent is recognised – it’s all so beautifully authentic. The historical backdrop is also incredibly evocative, weaving in real life figures of the ballet world – Ninette de Valois, Constant Lambert, Frederick and Dora Freed to name a few – to give extra credibility to the story. As such, the novel offers something of a history lesson for those fascinated by ballet’s rich past.
Clara & Olivia orbits around the world of ballet but at its very core this is a story about sisters, specifically the powerful, often complicated connection between twins. Inspired by her own relationship with her twin sister, Lucy Ashe explores the similarities and differences between the two characters. How they pull apart and come back together. How there is very little they wouldn’t do to protect each other. And whilst it’s the ballet theme that’s likely to draw readers to the novel, it’s the fierce sisterly bond between Clara and Olivia that lingers long after the final pages turn.
Clara & Olivia was published by Magpie on 2 February 2023