Inspired by Grimm fairy tale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses”, Genevieve Valentine’s The Girls at the Kingfisher Club tells the story of twelve sisters in prohibition-era New York. Kept hidden away at home by their father – who worries that his inability to produce a male heir will affect his social standing – the girls find their outlet in sneaking out at night to go dancing. Life becomes more complicated for the girls, however, when their father becomes suspicious, and decides it’s time he started to marry them off.
Told from the perspective of the eldest sister, Jo, much of the novel is about the balance she tries to strike in keeping her sisters together and helping them cope with their closed in lives. Jo knows that they are better off together even if it means they have no true freedom, and keeping them together like this has resulted in her sisters seeing her as cold, and a proxy for their distant father (whom several of the girls have never met). Her sisters call her the General, and she doesn’t allow them to see how she sacrifices her own happiness to keep her family together.
Valentine does a good job in giving each of the twelve girls distinct personalities, so that I never got confused about who was who. The older girls get more attention – they were the first around, the first to go out to the clubs, and the first for whom their father tries to make matches – but all but perhaps the youngest are given enough to feel rounded, individuals stuck living closely with so many others.
The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is a story about family, about the sacrifices one makes for those you love, and about keeping your strength and your independence when it would otherwise be taken from you. It’s also an entertaining look at the culture of the illegal dance halls, and how they managed to function despite prohibition.
It’s quite possibly my favourite of the 2014-published books I’ve read. I’d urge anyone to get a copy and read it. I’m only disappointed it isn’t SFF, so I can’t stick it on my Hugo ballot.