________________ CM . . . . Volume XIII Number 12 . . . . February 2, 2007

cover When the Curtain Rises. 

Rachel Dunstan Muller.
Victoria, BC: Orca, 2007.
130 pp., pbk., $8.95.
ISBN 978-1-55143-615-9.
Grades 5-7 / Ages 10-12.
Review by Brianne Grant.
***½ /4


“Did he ever mention anything strange about it?” Chloe asked as Kitty offered her a plate of toast.
Chloe looked across the table at Abigail, but the housekeeper’s eyes were fixed on the toast she was buttering. “I don’t know,” said Chloe. “Like did it ever seem to change slightly? As if the people in it had moved, or the sun was in a different place?”
“Abigail,” Bess interjected, glaring across the kitchen table. “Have you been telling tales?”
“I haven’t told her anything,” Abigail said her cheeks flushing. “Chloe saw what she saw.”
“I don’t know that I saw anything,” Chloe said. “I’m sure it was just my imagination.” 

“There’s a lot of superstitious nonsense floating around about this house,” Bess told Chloe. “Don’t let yourself get swept up in it. That’s exactly what it is –– superstitious nonsense.” 

Bess is wrong. It is not superstitious nonsense, but a fascinating mystery that Chloe is determined to solve in When the Curtain Rises, by Rachel Dunstan Muller, who brilliantly unravels the mystery of Chloe’s great-grandfather, the magician Dante. Chloe is also a pianist struggling to cope with severe stage fright, and the attention to her character development adds a refreshing element to the story. The novel is fast paced, easily manageable, and provides a captivating light read.
     Chloe’s 90-year-old great-aunts, Bess and Kitty, ask her to leave her west coast home and venture to Little Venice, in Ontario, for a summer vacation. Chloe is initially reluctant but is intrigued by the stories of her great-aunts’ ‘magical’ house and a small key sent with the letter. Chloe’s arrival at Little Venice occurs very rapidly, which makes it easy to get into the story. Kitty immediately gives Chloe The Memoirs of Dante Magnus, through which details about her great-grandfather’s life, his magic, and even Canadian history are found. The memoirs work through Dante’s immigration to Canada from Ireland and his discovery of and passion for magic. This passion takes him on a difficult journey to the Yukon where he performs as a magician, and then, as Kitty explains, he founds his own traveling show in Canada. She further explains that Dante and his entire carnival disappeared very mysteriously while he was away without his family. As Chloe reads the memoir and listens to her great-aunts, she becomes increasingly determined to solve this mystery. By including memoirs and letters in the body of the narrative, Muller creates a very intense plot that is exciting to read. Furthermore, the characters of the past are very charismatic and fascinating as they are developed through this link to Chloe’s history.
     The excerpts from Dante’s memoirs are fairly short, and so the intertextual aspect of the novel never becomes cumbersome to read. Instead, the story moves very quickly and smoothly, and the mystery becomes more intriguing with each chapter. The sense of mystery is heightened through the housekeeper, Abigail, who very elusively hints that there are magical properties inherent in the house. The great-aunts debate over the whether there really is a mystery or magic to the house, but most importantly their quirky personalities light up the story. Little Venice, itself, seems to be a magical place that is filled with many curious characters. Nyssa is a young resident of the town who befriends Chloe and helps her to overcome her stage fright.

     Chloe struggles to understand what happened to her great-grandfather, to find out why she received a key with her invitation, and to uncover the mysteries of the house, itself. At the same time, she is also grappling with her own psychological problem. Her stage fright threatens her dream of becoming a renowned pianist, and Chloe begins to wonder if her ambition is as dangerous as her great-grandfather’s was. The novel gently explores the issue of balancing ambition, talent, work, dreams, and family life for both adults and youth. When the Curtain Rises does not become too didactic but shows the negative side to becoming overly driven by ambition. Fortunately, Chloe has Nyssa, Abigail, and her great-aunts to very realistically help her overcome this over the course of the novel.
     The characters of this story are all unique and interesting in their own way, and they complement the historical and intriguing storyline well. I have never been very interested in magic or even mystery novels, but I found this story very compelling. Muller develops a delightful sense of intrigue, and in When the Curtain Rises she captures a sense of the everyday challenges children face.
Highly Recommended.
Brianne Grant is a student in the Master of Arts in Children's Literature at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC. 

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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