By George
Wesley Stace
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Buy *By George* by Wesley Staceonline

By George
Wesley Stace
Back Bay Books
400 pages
August 2008
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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In By George, author Wesley Stace switches from the eighteenth century, so beautifully realized in his earlier novel Misfortune, to the glitz and glamor of the twentieth-century English stage and the popular art of ventriloquism.

George Fisher is son of glamorous Frankie Fisher, who has made a lucrative career out of English pantomime. George is also the grandson of Joe "Death Wish" Fisher, who once fashioned a ventriloquist act and entertained the troops throughout the Middle East during the Second World War, even as he faced the derision of his diva mother, Echo "Evie" Endor.

Echo is the Fisher family matriarch, ruling with an iron fist and considered to be one the last great stalwarts of the British stage, who once wowed audiences with her one-act show featuring her "dummy boy" Narcissus. A relic of the pre-war years and a sly manipulator, Echo brimmed with her own agenda, constantly plotting how she could build Joe's career and help him through the early heartbreak as he paid his dues.

A "ventriloquiste" of old-time variety, Echo had hoped to pass on the benefit of her years of experience, even when she's determined to hide many of the real secrets of her success from Joe. Even though Joe wanted to develop an act centered on "polyphony," the art of making voices appear from nowhere, Echo was determined not to have her life's work belittled by an amateur, even if he was her son.

But there's another George who plays a part in this story, that of Joe's trusted confidante, Gorgeous Garrulous George, who was given to Joe from his mother as a present on his twenty-first birthday and partially narrates this tale. Joe and George become a part of Echo's traveling variety act called the Fol-de-Rols. Suddenly it's George against Narcissus and Joe against Echo as Echo pretends to offer Joe an encouraging hand while pushing him down with the other.

Fast-forward to 1973, and eleven-year-old George Fisher is resentfully packed off to the Upside School for Boys. Cast aside by his mother, the all-too-busy Frankie, George is unable to live with his grandmother, Queenie, or  his great-grandmother, Evie, who is now in her early nineties and so decrepit that she can no longer leave her bed.

Thrust into a new world with its unimagined customs and codes, George finds Upside to be the very antithesis of his life with his family. So begins his sad and solitary life in a world where there is no room for pleasure and even reading is discouraged. It is only through Evie's gift, an ornately designed Victorian book called The Life and Adventures of Valentine Fox the Ventriloquist, about a boy who can throw his voice and make fun of people by pretending to be another voice, that George sets his heart on cultivating his own weird gift and avenging all the wrongs and injustices that have roused his indignation.

Alternating between the lives of George and Joe, Stace makes the pages come alive with the worlds of ventriloquism, pantomime, and variety entertainment as he follows the Fisher family struggling through the War and the blackout restrictions, the 1950s and the onset of television, and on to the the '70s, where the once sacred art of ventriloquism has become a creepy nostalgia act, a party trick "on a par with juggling, surviving only on a pier and at the children's party."

Soon enough, family secrets are revealed, and George becomes ever more obsessed with finding out the truth behind the life of his enigmatic grandfather. But certain questions remain: Why have Frankie and Evie idolized Joe over the years, regularly referring to him as "our war hero?" What connection does the reclusive Upside handyman Donald have to the Fishers, and more importantly to Frankie? And why does embittered Aunt Silvia, who suddenly vanished from the family fold years ago, want nothing more to do with George?

Based on the life of Stace's own grandfather, this novel weaves together the mysterious forces of memory, spirit and desire and contains some of the most vivid accounts of life on the English stage. The author also embeds his story with a heavy sense of the nostalgic. The result is a tale that will delight Anglophiles, lovers of bawdy British humor, and anyone who is interested in learning about the great art of ventriloquism.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at Michael Leonard, 2007

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