Title: The Turnout

Author: Megan Abbott

Publisher: Hachette/Virago

Megan Abbott made her mark early with noir novels and more recently splashed onto Netflix with the adaptation of her novel Dare Me, set in the world of cheerleading. 

Here, she combines those influences with a contemporary Gothic atmosphere centred on a ballet school run by the sisters Dara and Marie and Dara’s husband, Charlie. All three have risen through the dance ranks under the tutelage of the girls’ mother, the pains, scents, jealousies and beauty of the art beautifully evoked as the school prepares for its signature annual production, The Nutcracker.

Tchaikovsky’s ballet is, we are told by one of Abbott’s characters, in part an exploration of desire, and Abbott makes full use of this as The Nutcracker infuses the story in theme and imagery. As with The Nutcracker, so too ballet; even the chapters are cut into small steps, each dramatically opening with a drop capital but the whole coming together in a smooth movement under Abbott’s assured direction.

Repetition in words and phrases adds to the lyrical quality in Abbott’s prose that may, very occasionally, make a small misstep but never stumbles. It’s an exquisite rendering, the book’s title itself a reference to a key ballet stance given extra meaning in Abbott’s skilled hands. 

The school, dated and drafty, and the trio’s home, even more tired and still echoing with the girls’ parents’ tumultuous relationship, form the key sites of this claustrophobic tale. We see, hear and smell these locations through Dara’s point of view as she stoically maintains the school’s tradition alongside the impetuous Marie and impaired, beautiful Charlie. 

The trio’s relationship is increasingly brought under pressure by the arrival of a stranger into the school and their lives. There are secrets and there are tragedies, and while these are unlikely to surprise, they do unfold in perfect timing across the novel’s four acts, allowing the sisters to have, like The Nutcracker’s heroine Clara, their journey from childhood to a newfound maturity and freedom. (It is no coincidence that Marie is an alternative name for the Nutcracker‘s Clara.)

This being an Abbott book, such a journey of discovery does not come without a cost, and nothing is assured. In this, the story again mirrors ballet: beauty built on pain, a journey that entrances every step of the way.

Reviewed by: Jason Nahrung

Jason is BWI communications officer / Review copy provided by the publisher