The Girls at the Kingfisher Club
Release Date: June 3, 2014
“The Twelve Dancing Princesses” may not be the most well known of the Brothers Grimm’s German fairy tales. The story of a king trying to solve the mystery of how twelve princesses of his kingdom continue to escape their locked tower, evidenced by dancing shoes that are worn through each morning, may not have the panache of “Cinderella”, “Rumpelstiltskin” or “Hansel and Gretel”, but that’s not a bad thing. Being less well known, it makes Genevieve Valentine’s stylistic reimagining of the tale even more enchanting.
In Ms. Valentine’s tale, set in the Roaring ’20s, the princesses are twelve sisters, shut up in their New York town house by a domineering father upset that his now deceased wife could not provide him a male heir. A cold, distant man (he has not even set eyes on the youngest of his daughters), he has decreed that his disgraceful offspring stay sequestered in their upper rooms at all times, with a pittance of allowance for the entire brood from which they order clothing and other necessities from catalogs, at least until the girls are old enough that he can secure advantageous business arrangements with men of a certain social standing who are willing to become their husbands.
And the dutiful, fearful daughters do so – for the most part. Unbeknownst to their father, after midnight the girls often slip down the back stairway on stocking feet, shoes tied together and flung over their shoulders, to go dancing until the wee hours of the morning. It is their one escape, their only knowledge of the outside world, and in this world (where names are not given, falling in love is not allowed, and the music and atmosphere is everything) they are princesses.
The effect of all twelve of them standing on the stairs was striking enough that the room paused as the crowd caught sight of them, and even the musicians dropped the volume for a beat, as if the wind had been knocked out of them from twelve girls with glittering, dance-hungry eyes appearing all at once (…)
The Charleston picked up seamlessly (good musicians were hard to rattle), and the bouncer closed the door behind them, dropping the room back into the false twilight. Still, the crowd seemed to hang back from the stairs, waiting for them to burst into song or pull out revolvers or throw their shoes at the unsuspecting.
Jo – Josephine – is the oldest, the one with who is summoned by their father on behalf of the other sisters and the one who remembers the most. But she is also the one who first taught the sisters how to dance up in their attic rooms, and she is the one who determines if they will sneak out and where they will go, the one who watches for men who get too familiar, for sisters who throw too many tender glances, and she is the one who counts heads, who makes sure everyone gets home, who safeguards their secret the most closely. The other girls call her “the General”, and yet she is the only mother some of them have ever known. Jo almost fell in love once, when she and Lou – Louise – first started stepping out, but she knew that falling in love simply wasn’t possible for a girl in her situation, not with all the other sisters to take care of, so she simply pretended that it didn’t happen. It wasn’t until much later that she realized just how much of a sacrifice she had made – and would make again if it came to it. The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is about all the sisters, but it is told through Jo’s eyes.
And it is indeed still written like a fairy tale. It sparkles, it draws imaginative pictures, it takes us deep into another world (a world of the past, of speakeasies, of bobbed hair and red lipstick, and officers stopping by for their protection money), but to read it as if it were something that really happened would deprive the story of its charm. The depth of the sisters’ recluse and their ability to nevertheless be as astute and vivacious as they are in the face of it would certainly challenge a rational reading of the text. But the young ladies’ joy in dancing, in their own coquettishness, and at the excitement of escape from their drudgery and their tyrannical father, along with the bonds that develop between the sisters, transcend the rational and at times enter into the sublime.
The story is completely told “in the moment”, as it happens, which is both wonderfully immersive and at times somewhat confounding. The slang, the expectations and the sensibilities of the 1920s may be vaguely familiar to us nowadays through old movies, documentaries on Prohibition and pop culture nostalgia, but following along through the eyes of a character who is not only a product of her time but who is also sequestered and very sheltered can leave the modern reader making assumptions on motive and morals based on speech and actions where it’s not clear if those assumptions hit the mark or not. Strangely, though, that’s part of the charm of the book, as if the naivety (or very narrow worldliness) of Jo and her sisters is something that is assumed, without there being a necessity for exposition. Exposition would merely mar the narrative; sensations are more important than clarity here – the sounds, the look, the feel of the world.
The story does tend to stall in the first third of the book, as so much time is given in small glimpses of the girls’ lives both in captivity and on the dance floor; concern can be raised on the part of the reader that perhaps nothing much is really going to happen after all, just lots of pretty pictures passing by like photographs being passed around at a garden party. But in the second half of the book and especially the final third, the narrative really start to move, and suddenly all the “world building” at the start of the novel becomes valuable.
The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is a slight volume, but one that is full to the brim with scenes that truly do evoke a time and place that in and of itself feels like a fairy tale: the Roaring ’20s. Add to than effervescent story with a somewhat familiar ring to it, written by a talented young writer with a lovely ear for language, and you have a story worthy of finding it’s place on anyone’s bookshelf.