The figurative language of Joanna Quinn

Reading time: About 2 minutes

I like to share interesting pieces of figurative language I encounter in my reading. I write today about a series of telling images from Joanna Quinn…

The English writer Joanna Quinn is marvellously imaginative. Although The Whalebone Theatre is her first novel, she writes with the assurance of a much more experienced author.

The story begins in the mid-1920s, when a young girl, whose mother died during her childbirth, is awaiting the arrival of a step-mother. Later, a whale washes up on the shores of the English Channel and the girl and her siblings build a theatre from the beast’s skeletal rib cage. In an incredible flight of imagination, the story carries on until the Second World War when the girl, now a young woman, and her brother, both become secret agents.

It sounds improbable, I know, but I found the story to be delightful. I also appreciated Quinn’s generous and superb use of figurative language. Here are my favourite examples:

  • And here she is. She has made it through. . . Despite the view from the rattling carriage windows jerking backwards and forwards like scenery waved about by amateurish stagehands
  • She is fixed in place. An exhibit. White-capped maids come and go, lighting the fire and drawing the curtains, as busy and remote as gulls.
  • His wooing of her had largely consisted of him presenting her with historical facts in the way a cat continually brings its owner dead mice, despite their perplexing lack of success.
  • Willoughby eats like a flamboyant painter — sweeping swathes of marmalade across crumbling toast, pouring milk into his teacup for a jug held so high the liquid becomes a single thin torrent …
  • Jasper blows his nose again, a mournful bugle call.
  • Every morning she woke exhausted, with a sour metallic taste in her mouth, as if she has spent the night sucking coins.
  • After a night of thunderstorms, the air is a fresh as clean laundry.
  • The hedgerows take up motion, cow parsley quivering delightedly every time Willoughby roars past in his Daimler; Chilcombe’s horse chestnut trees gladly wave their ice-cream cone flowers, and the buttercup meadows are all swaying invitation.
  • Rosalind smiles automatically. She often receives praise from women on behalf of her husband, like diplomatic gifts.
  • A few rooks are pecking a the grass, but they take off as Willoughby approaches, with brisk wingbeats of air, an efficient sound like the brushing down of an expensive suit.
  • The crisp displays of October, all its smart oranges and yellows, have been spoiled and scatter about as November rushes in, dragging winter behind it like a trail of rattling cans.
  • When she gets into bed at night, sleep hits her like a punch.
  • The sound of it [rain] hitting the sea is a crackly hiss, like spitting oil in a frying pan.
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