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Saturday 30 March 2024

‘The Sleeping Beauties’ by Lucy Ashe

Published by Magpie,
15 February 2024.
978-0-86154-824-8 (HB)

More often than not, crime in fiction equates to murder, so it’s a refreshing change when there’s no blood and violence. There’s death here, and not by natural causes, but that’s not the crime. Lucy Ashe has chosen to explore something more subtle, with a lacing of man’s inhumanity to man – or more accurately in this case, women to woman. 

The exploration happens against a background Ashe knows well: the world of ballet. But this world is not the one she herself was part of for a number of years, but a pre- and post-war one, when dance giants Margot Fonteyn and Robert Helpmann were making their name, and the Royal Ballet was still Sadlers Wells. Ashe has researched her subject meticulously, and a vivid picture of scruffy, crowded dressing rooms, lavish costumes and a punishing and often painful practice regime springs off the page in lifelike detail.

One of the two main characters is part of that company: Briar Woods, supporting artiste and member of the corps de ballet. She encounters the other protagonist, Rosamund Caradon, on a train. Rosamund is returning the last few evacuees she has housed through the war to their London homes, and Briar is rejoining the Sadlers Wells company after a brief visit to her family home in Devon, close to Rosamund’s. Briar takes a close interest in Jasmine, Rosamund’s eight-year-old daughter – and Rosamund starts to wonder if their meeting was entirely accidental. All three, and the many supporting characters too, are created in almost as much detail as the ballet setting, and drew me in to inhabit their worlds alongside them.

What follows is a sad and complex tale of passion and rejection, obsession and coercion, and also of guilt and friendship. Attitudes were quite different all those decades ago; young women were expected to adhere to certain codes of behaviour, and their life choices were far more limited and constrained by convention than in our enlightened times. But Briar wants to follow her own path and is prepared to resort to extreme measures to achieve it. What transpires as a result carries a few surprises in its wake, and the reader is left with a sense of balance regained and lessons learned.

I was left wondering whether crime fiction is the right designation for a story of such huge emotional depth, and so rich with a slice of history not often explored. Regardless of the genre label it merits, it’s a page-turner. You’ll want to follow Briar’s story to the sometimes-bitter end.  
Reviewer: Lynne Patrick

Lucy Ashe trained at the Royal Ballet School before moving to Oxford University to study English Literature. She is an author and her first novel, a historical fiction thriller entitled Clara & Olivia was published in 2023. She also teaches English and Drama at Harrow School. She enjoys reviewing all theatre with particular interest in dance.


Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives in Oxfordshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.

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