Lanigan tells the story of Catherine in 'A True History of the Hula Hoop', a street theatre performer, intertwined with a short flashback tale of a troupe of Commedia dell’Arte clowns in the sixteenth century, and as the name of the novel implies fragments of history of the hula hoop.
A True History of the Hula Hoop
According to Christopher Booker, in Seven Basic Plots, all stories told use variations of the same plots: voyage there and back, the monster, the quest, rags to riches, comedy, tragedy, and rebirth. I wonder where Judith Lanigan’s A True History of the Hula Hoop would fit into this schema? Lanigan tells the story of Catherine, a street theatre performer, intertwined with a short flashback tale of a troupe of Commedia dell’Arte clowns in the sixteenth century, and as the name of the novel implies fragments of history of the hula hoop.
Catherine travels, with hoops, balloons and flamboyant shoes, from festival to circus and then on to carnival. Possibly, in the depictions of the tribulations and the pleasures of working as a street performer this is an autobiographical account of a street clown’s life. Lanigan certainly puts a very clear differentiation between clowns and actors into the mouth of one of her characters: ’An actor acts and a clown is.’ At one time in her travels she almost traces the path of that earlier troupe of clowns. Although this story is about clowns it is not a comedy. Nor is it a tragedy. There are no monsters involved. We can trace elements of a quest as Catherine acquires skills and knowledge, she does not become rich, but she does make sufficient money, so that she can ignore the advice of those who tell her ‘to get a real job.’ She voyages and returns home more mature and skilful enough to be in demand on the festival circuit.
Lanigan shows some of the parallels between the life of a modern street performer and sixteenth century world of Commedia dell’Arte. Travel is usually exhausting, attitudes to female performers can be misogynist, performers must rely on management which can be unscrupulous, and friendships although intense, are often ephemeral. Fortunately, Catherine is not kidnapped as her antecedents were - this part of the story was based on an actual incident. A troupe of Commedia dell’Arte clowns was held ransom until a thousand Huguenot prisoners were released.
Like many first novels, this tale has the hint of more material that can fit into one story; there are story lines which do not go anywhere. And strangely, apart from Catherine, it is the clowns of the sixteenth century whose characters are most firmly drawn and rounded out. This may be intentional, as a way of indicating the transitory nature of relationships whilst on the road.
Picador, the publisher, has made it easy to differentiate between digressions on the history of the Hula Hoop, and the flashbacks to sixteenth century and the ongoing story. The use of different typefaces is much easier on the eye than the usual italics.
This is a good first novel. It will be interesting to see this writer’s next book. If we gave stars for books this one would have a three to three and a half stars out of five.
True History of the Hula Hoop: A Novel
by Judith Lanigan
Publishe by Picard