Astonish Me – Maggie Shipstead

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How do you capture physical movement with language? I once did an art project on painting movement, and it was virtually impossible.

Maggie Shipstead, despite not being a dancer, turns her language into ballet. I have never read something that so precisely replicates how it feels to pirouette, arabesque or even to stretch at the barre. As you read, you feel as though you are on stage dancing with the characters; feel the sweat trickle down your spine, the satisfied ache of your muscles, the control of your body as you count the steps into your final, miraculous leap, gliding through the air and “wrapping the tension of the audience around you”.

Astonish Me is simply majestic. It reads like a ballet, with short, intense scenes, deviations into little pas de deux of the past, and characters who dedicate their lives to dance.

Joan, the focal character, has never been brilliant. She is simply good. The pain of this – the fact that every day she sees how much she lacks – is something I know well, and I therefore loved her as a character. When she becomes pregnant she leaves her ballet company for a nice, safe man who will dedicate his life to her. They have a son, and soon enough she realises that this boy is a rare talent, a prodigy, and she raises him to dance as she never could.

Shipstead’s language is like ballet: precise and technical, yet seemingly effortless, darting before you, alluding to the most complex feelings and emotions, but letting you work them out for yourself. I would change nothing about it.

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