Ballet has always been a popular backdrop for stories, tapping into not only the magic and beauty of dance, but also the struggles and strife of characters pursuing their dreams. In 2021, readers were treated to M. A. Kuzniar’s spellbinding The Nutcracker retelling, Midnight in Everwood, and just last month saw the publication of former dancer Lucy Ashe’s Clara & Olivia, a suspenseful novel set within the ultra competitive world of professional ballet. Alyssa Wees’ Nocturne shares the same 1930’s time period as Ashe’s book, but instead of historical London, the backdrop is Depression-era Chicago, and instead of a story rooted in gritty realism, this is a fantastical tale that expertly blurs the lines of reality and fantasy.
Grace has always wanted to dance. An immigrant child who was orphaned when her mother died, she’s known very little beyond suffering, death and grief. Seeking a place to belong, Grace finds a new home at the Near North Ballet company. Life at the boarding house is tough, but under the austere and watchful eye of the ballet mistress, Grace pours her pain into her dance. Years later, she has her heart set on becoming the company’s prima ballerina, a dream that comes true when she attracts the attention of the enigmatic Master La Rosa. With the company struggling financially, the Master’s patronage feels like a miracle. But the Master is a shadowy figure whose face remains a mystery, and his benefaction comes with a stipulation – one that Grace has no choice but to accept.
Moving from the boarding house to the Master’s elusive mansion, Grace is finally introduced to her mysterious patron. He might look like a man but Grace feels the beast lurking underneath, waiting to either capture her heart or devour her whole. As she begins to unlock La Rosa’s secrets, Grace discovers that there might be another way to achieve the transcendence she’s always sought. But the more she settles into the Master’s dreamlike realm, the more she begins to fall for his charms, and suddenly it’s reality that feels intangible; something that’s slowly slipping from Grace’s grasp. She must choose between her old life and her new one, between listening to her soft heart and her disoriented head. One choice will offer otherworldliness, the other desolation, and it’s not easy to tell which is which until it’s too late.
It was like a hand you’d imagine reaching out of a nightmare, from underneath the bed, around a dark corner. My mind went blank. It didn’t make sense—and yet. Was he the Devil? Maybe—oh God, maybe. Certainly, he was a beast.”
Nocturne has the dreamlike storybook feel of Beauty and the Beast, with the theatrical flavour of Phantom of the Opera. Master La Rosa is every bit the phantom presence at the beginning of the book, an enigmatic figure who lurks in the shadows, seeming to appear out of nowhere and disappear just as fast. He might be hiding claws under his gloves, but he might also be hiding the face of a handsome prince under his cloak. Grace is both frightened and intrigued by her benefactor, yet the more she learns of him, the less she fears.
Despite his secrecy and bargains, Wees never writes the Master as a villain. But he isn’t a hero either. He sits somewhere in the middle, as many of the characters in this story do. Grace is always on her guard with him and therefore readers are too, yet their evolving relationship is peculiarly romantic. There’s a growing intimacy between them that tugs at the lonely, broken pieces of Grace’s soul, but she’s a fighter through and through. She’s lived in the long shadow of death her entire life. So whilst part of her journey is discovering the Master’s secrets and what he truly wants from her, the other part sees her learning that she, and she alone, is in control of her own fate.
There’s so much palpable detail to this book and there are lots of little tales going on within the wider story too. Tales of protective mothers and devoted daughters, tales of lost love and found family, tales of feuding brothers and deathly deals. It blends historical fiction with haunting fantasy, a captivating combination that paints a surreal and evocative image of the wintry, destitute streets of 1930’s Chicago. Wees’ writing is beautifully lyrical, offering a perfect escape from reality, and nothing feels overstretched. If anything, the book doesn’t feel long enough. It doesn’t delve particularly deeply into the Master’s past or the pact that set him on his path to finding Grace. But isn’t that a sure sign that you’ve enjoyed a book, when you come to care about the characters and finish the final page wishing you could conjure up another chapter or two? Give me more gothic stories of dancing girls, enigmatic patrons and dream worlds, please.
Nocturne is published by Del Rey on 21 February 2023