Saturday, June 8, 2013

In the Wings - Elsbeth Edgar

When Ella sees the auditions notice up for A Midsummer Night’s Dream at school her heart lifts – then sinks. Longing to be part of the cast she puts her name down, instead, to help backstage. As she always does. Mr Paterson’s suggestion to attend rehearsals so that she can implement her creative ideas for set design becomes a blessing and a curse. It’s great to work with Lou, the efficient but friendless year seven Mr Paterson has assigned as her assistant, but to watch the members of the cast being put through their paces, reciting the lines Ella knows by heart, is torturous. She would give anything to be rid of her stage fright, to trade backstage for the stage itself.

Life takes a twist when Mum returns from a visit to England with Ella’s estranged grandfather – a retired actor – who is to stay with the family after suffering a heart attack. And then another couple of twists when the year nines are late back from an excursion and Mr Paterson unexpectedly instructs Ella and Lou to fill in during an important rehearsal; Ella does such a stellar job being the fairy that, when Tricia is suspended from school for stealing, he offers her the part. Ella rises to the challenge, not only of facing her fear of stage fright, but of playing against the conceited Sam Hennessy as Puck – and what unfolds as a result brings more than a few surprises for all involved.

In the Wings is a story that is unafraid to plumb the depths of the human condition as it plays out in the lives of Ella and her friends and family. The young teenage or pre-teen reader, as the story unravels, is positioned to observe and experience – alongside Ella – a gamut of life situations: the fragility of the body when illness strikes and the tenuous balance between life and death; the challenge to tolerance in the face of difference; the longevity of grief around a lost relationship; the impact of shame as a consequence of poor judgement and a bad decision; the renewal that comes with loyalty, trust and resilience; and the thrill and hope of first love. Elsbeth Edgar expertly situates her characters in a school setting that will be familiar to her target audience and raises issues close to the heart of teenagers. She invokes empathy for Ella, allowing readers to engage with Ella’s thoughts and feelings and challenges.

This book is engaging from first page to last. It is well crafted, buoyed by conflict, tension and mystery with believable, three-dimensional characters. The references to Shakespeare and the world of the theatre add vibrancy and depth. A rewarding read that stays close on your heels well after you’ve closed the covers.

Walker Books 2013

(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 28, Issue 2, May 2013)

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