The Hamilton sisters weren’t supposed to exist. Joseph Hamilton wanted a male heir, and his wife did her best. But in the end, he was disappointed, left with no son, no wife, and twelve girls, whom he kept secluded in the upper rooms of his Fifth Avenue town house and raised with only the scantiest knowledge of the outside world.
Jo, the firstborn, “The General” to her eleven sisters, is the nearest thing they have to a mother. She is the one who taught them how to dance, the one who gives the signal each night, as they slip out of the confines of their home and escape to Manhattan’s underground speakeasies. Together they elude their distant and controlling father, until he announces his plans to marry them off.
As their father handpicks the suitors he deems eligible, the girls continue to do what they have always done: dance. From the Salon Renaud to the Swan and, finally, the Kingfisher, the club they would call home. They dance until the night it is raided, and Jo finds herself confronted by a bootlegger from her past. As old mistakes and the demands of her father and eleven sisters bear down on her, Jo must determine who she can trust, and how much she is willing to risk on her own.
After the weird, postapocalyptic, dark world that Genevieve Valentine gave us in Mechanique, it is perhaps fitting that she has turned her gave to the altogether different world of Prohibition-era New York; to both she has brought a sense of magic, a fairytale quality, especially appropriate in this retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princess .
That is not, of course, to say that her worldbuilding is bad; no, quite the opposite. The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is a beautiful recreation of late-1920s New York; the underground libertinism (one particularly underground club has mixed-race and homosexual couples!), the casual corruption, the sense of freedom and escape, the repression of women and their rebellion against it, and the seamy underbelly. Valentine’s New York lives and breathes, just as its inhabitants do; this isn’t gleaming skyscrapers, it’s the speakeasies, the clubs, dodging cops and catching cabs.
The characters are equally vivid. With a novel featuring at a minimum thirteen major characters, and in reality probably closer to the region of twenty, all of whom have to be believable if not sympathetic, Valentine has taken the decision to largely focus on Jo; it is through the General’s eyes that The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is mostly scene, although key moments jump to show us the actions of all twelve in a brilliant piece of writing. Every single character, likable or otherwise, clearly has an interior life, has motivations, is in fact human; even Jo’s detested father is humanised by the end of the novel. Switching perspectives also has the advantage of showing us Jo from other perspectives; in her own mind, she’s apart from the other girls but helping them, keeping them safe, while they see things rather differently. Valentine manages to balance these competing realities throughout the book, never tipping one way or the other; Jo isn’t a flawless hero, she’s just another person doing the best she can.
That “best” is what The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is all about. The first half sets the scene for the second, achronologically introducing us to the girls, showing how the sisters’ rebellion grew while also showing us the effect of the twelve as a unit; both domestically and in the clubs, the interactions between the girls and their audiences set the stage for later events beautifully. Indeed, Valentine’s narrative control is on full display here; despite multiple characters, multiple timelines and the need to set all her cards up, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club feels smooth throughout, the pacing and style always appropriate to the moment and blending seamlessly with what preceded and what follows it. That’s one of its great strengths; Valentine has a beautiful, gentle style that really pulls the reader in and hypnotises one, so that one can spend a whole day reading the book and not even realise it until the last page is turned.
Oh, and as intimated above, it’s a queer book; this is made beautifully little of, as Valentine drops in the homosexual couples dancing as just a fact of an underground club, and Rose’s lesbianism as no different to any of the preferences in men of the other characters; The Girls at the Kingfisher Club shows so little interest in treating queerness differently that is just blends into the background of the novel in a truly beautiful way.
If Mechanique was an amazing debut novel for Valentine to burst onto the scene with, then Girls at the Kingfisher Club shows that it was no fresher fluke; this sophomore novel gets right everything Mechanique did, and then does it better. Read it. Read it now.