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Book Review: The Sleeping Beauties by Lucy Ashe

Book Review: The Sleeping Beauties by Lucy Ashe

Moving from the early 1930’s setting of her suspenseful ballet-centred debut, Clara & Olivia, to the fragile World War II era between the late 30’s and early 40’s, Lucy Ashe’s second novel is a story of friendship, motherhood and the stories – real and imagined – that make up people’s lives. Inspired by the ballet The Sleeping Beauty, specifically the darker themes of the classic fairytale, Ashe’s The Sleeping Beauties weaves the tales of an idealistic ballerina in London and a world-weary woman in Devon whose fates collided long before they even realised it.

Mimicking the acts and scenes of a ballet, the story opens in May, 1945, as protective mother Rosamund Caradon returns the last few evacuees to London from her Devonshire manor. Rosamund might feel sad about saying goodbye to the children she’s come to care for, but she still has her daughter, Jasmine, to protect from the harsh realities of the post-war world. A chance meeting on the train, however, brings the beautiful, elusive ballet dancer Briar Woods into Rosamund’s life. From the moment Briar captivates dance-obsessed Jasmine, Rosamund feels the threads of her carefully constructed existence beginning to unravel.

For so long, Briar’s one and only aspiration was to dance on stage. But the war changed so many things – families, friendships, desires, dreams – and now Briar has a new raison d’etre: Jasmine. Determined to make amends for something that happened one fateful night on tour in Amsterdam during the German invasion, Briar believes Jasmine is her salvation. She just needs to get Rosamund out of the way first. Shifting between pre-war, post-war and those dark days during the war, we see the decisions and moments that brought both women to their fraught present situations.

All evening she has been drinking, and her body is not used to the rising haze of champagne. She knows she should have been more careful, more alert to the dangers around her. But tonight there was no one to watch over her, no fairy godmother, no mother at all.

As with Clara & Olivia, The Sleeping Beauties plays out like a theatrical performance, characters orbiting each other, entering and exiting each other’s lives as if dancing on and off stage. The initial jumping between perspectives and time periods is a little jarring but the story soon draws readers into the standoffish friction between Rosamund and Briar – two women who don’t know each other but who are both hiding pasts that threaten to derail their futures. Whilst the two characters don’t share all that much page time together, it’s clear that their lives are inexplicably linked. Ashe crafts an intriguing mystery surrounding Briar’s obsession with Jasmine and the traumatic events that shaped her fragile mental state. Rosamund is a slightly more level-headed character but living apart from the world, with only her daughter and ailing mother for company, has made her wary of anything and everything. And, in different ways, that’s just as hazardous to Jasmine’s wellbeing.

Across the shifting years, Ashe explores the toll the war takes on both Rosamund and Briar, as well as the peripheral characters in their lives. This is very much a butterfly effect novel, a story where one small choice or action affects another in a much larger way. In keeping with the source material inspiration, the chapters from Briar’s perspective do have a dark fairytale-esque feel, the younger version of the character in the past careening towards split-second decisions that will eventually snatch her youthful optimism and lead her to behave recklessly. Briar’s reasoning for her actions is easy to guess as the book progresses, which steals some of the suspense, but there’s a clever twist within a twist towards the end of the book that will make readers look back on previous chapters with a fresh, more sympathetic eye.

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Impeccably researched and atmospherically written, The Sleeping Beauties features rich period detail on the Sadlers Wells Ballet and the real historical figures who shaped the company. Lucy Ashe has found a wonderful writing formula that combines classic ballet tales with fraught friendship dynamics, family drama and the rights of women. It’s the perfect read for fans of dance and historical fiction, painting an evocative picture of pre and post war Britain, and the difficulties people faced – both physically and psychologically – as they tried to put the pieces of their fractured lives back together again.


The Sleeping Beauties was published by Magpie on 15 February 2024

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