on March 19, 2010
The book opens with the announcement of the birth of the title character Venetia Kelly, as told by the narrator, Ben McCarthy. It is clear from the first paragraph, if not from the novel's title, that Venetia Kelly will play a pivotal role in this story. It is almost as if she is ordained with mythical power even from birth. But rather than immediately dive into Venetia's story, Delaney carefully weaves a tapestry of characters which surround or are connected to Venetia in some way. At first, it was difficult to see how all the threads were going to come together - the story moved from NYC to Ireland and between members of the Kelly and McCarthy families in the first 100 pages. But those 100 pages served their purpose - I found myself completely drawn into the story at that point. I knew the characters well and was driven to read on and see how the story would unfold and how they would influence each other's stories.
The use of Ben McCarthy as the narrator is an interesting device. Ben is telling this story as a man in his 50's reflecting on events that took place when he was an 18 year old on the verge of manhood. He acknowledges that here:
As you read, please know that I am a man of mature years telling the story of himself when young, so forgive me if at times I make the young me seem and sound older than eighteen.
By having the narrator speak so directly to the reader, Delaney makes the reader feel almost as if they are listening to a story being told by a friend as he reminisces about his childhood. The many "digressions" taken by narrator enhances the sense of the story being told to you - Ben speaks to the reader in the way you would imagine any good Irish storyteller would - by taking a circuitous route with lots of color thrown in for good measure. Interestingly enough, there is a link on Frank Delaney's website to lectures he has given on the tradition of Irish oral storytelling. That tradition is perpetuated in his narrator Ben McCarthy.
I truly enjoyed this expansive novel - it is rich and multi-layered and one of the few books I would choose to reread. There is so much woven into the novel - Irish political history, mythology and complex characters- that I feel it is a book that can be read on many levels and you may see different things upon reread. It has been a long time since I have been so absorbed in a novel; this is my first Delaney but most certainly will not be my last - I will definitely be going back to read his earlier novels!
How do legends emerge out of truth, myth from fact? Ben MacCarthy in a Year of Destiny, the election of 1932 as Fascist Blueshirts menace Ireland's uneasy democratic shifts, finds his young life's love. He must also grow up fast, gain revenge, rescue his family, and learn awful lessons. Delaney tells this in a narrative that convinces by its digressions, and teaches by its hard-won insistence not on stoic rejection, but profound understanding.
"I know that, at the end of it all, I did some remarkable things, far beyond the reach of a man of my age." (50) At eighteen, Ben must quickly come to maturity, as a detective of sorts, and as a sudden husband barely off the farm as he wanders Ireland in the company of a group of dramatic players. That his father has run off, preceding him, is only the first in a series of surprises, and shocks. He plunges into the saga of the Kellys, of whose scion King early we find: "His full name, Thomas Aquinas Kelly, was a comic misnomer. The only moral inquirers this man ever made had to do with money-- the inside track, the shortcut, the influence, the bribe, the pull, the means, typically foul, of getting what he wanted. He came out of the womb a criminal." (18)
This passage typifies Delaney's style. He conveys an old man looking way back to seek answers, but he keeps the verve of a young man's hopes leavened by a maturer fellow's rueful, worldly-wiser, philosophy. The book moves in and out of digressions as Ben seeks to puzzle out what happened in '32, and along the way a reader will learn about Irish politics, storytelling, and mores. When Ben makes his big move, the young man from the provinces going off to seek his fortune, or take back his family's small share of such, he admits his boldness and his foolhardiness in equal measure: "I was feeling the safety that's embodied in commitment, no matter how heartbreaking it may be." (268) It's a coming of age story in a time when the young Irish Republic comes of age.
There's far less about the Blueshirts themselves than I had expected, but then, they were a small movement with perhaps not much of an ideology to go on about at length anyhow, as Delaney seems to imply. The funhouse, satirical atmosphere of the traveling show fades as the novel goes on and the show gains some Shakespearean class. Cameos as the man in the leprechaun hat running for office and the ventriloquized Blarney (whose eloquence from the mouth of Venetia to me remains a mystery on one disturbing level which perhaps is as it should be, to keep its power over an audience member such as me) will reward the persevering reader.
Real-life sidles in, in a small detail such as Kalem Studios coming to make silent films in Ireland, or large one as in Eamon de Valera's uncanny hold over his admirers and detractors. Between the famous and the obscure, the nation being a small one, Ben will wander much of it as he tries to follow his own calling, and to figure out his own place in an island where feuds and memories cannot stay buried long. Don't expect an exhaustive travelogue even if Ben roams much of the Republic; it's more of what you'd hear from a man who sees his homeland but may also have been worn out by it, for in his travels he went more out of necessity than choice. Having visited myself many of the places in the Limerick-Tipperary rural stretches where most of this action occurs, this often overlooked terrain does gain its own dignified presence, but it lingers as backdrop, as a native lives with it, not a tourist, so the descriptions ring as more sparing and less rapturous in fitting tone.
The minor characters may stay so, and some of the major ones lurk long offstage after all are brought on in the first seventy pages, but like a dramatic show, the director will have reasons for bringing them off and on as the play goes on. The pace may seem rather unexpected, but as Ben himself strives to put together again what happened in 1932 at a far remove, the scattered elements begin, as best as he can reassemble them, to come together-- to a point, which is the whole novel's point. Free of cliche, and mercifully absent of many stereotypical figures that appear to infest market-town Irish vignettes even today, Delaney intersperses via folklorist James Clare a flavor of richer narratives, drawn from the elusive well at the world's end where ordinary folks enter extraordinary derring-do.
My dog-eared copy of his "Legends of the Celts" attests to Delaney's skill at enriching a modern account with mythic undertones without being too obvious or too oblique, and when reading this novel, I was reminded of how events over the years warp and fade. Ben warns early on: "Of the principal characters in this drama, I alone remain alive." He hopes to be proven wrong, however, and as he promises, the rambling and complicated story that he tells, no matter its twists and turns, winds up a rather compact comeuppance tale at its darker heart.
Late in its unfolding, we learn of its titular character her acting ability shines as she can hold back to draw the audience into her performance. Holding back, we come to appreciate as this ambitious novel reaches its climax, pulls the reader into Delaney's evocation of how family greed and young dreams clash and tear apart those caught in this year when "the tension in the country at that time" resembled "those photographs at night, when the camera's flash turns the neon into streaks and colored streamers. No wonder we all went a little mad." (105)
Another one where my review is in the minority!
I really struggled with this one. I made it well over half way through the book. I just couldn't finish it. I think that Frank Delaney is probably a terrific storyteller, and I love a great story. His prose is certainly lyrical and definitely Irish, which is normally something I enjoy reading. But, ultimately here, I didn't care for the characters. The set up for this story took too long and there were lots of characters to keep track of and way too many politics. All of his digressions, which many people loved, I found annoying. I wanted to find out what happened next, but unfortunately the rambling, circuitous route it took to get there was just a bit too windy for me.
There are certainly many glowing reviews out there for this book, and if you've enjoyed Frank Delaney in the past, I'm sure you'll enjoy this one too. I had great expectations for this one, but unfortunately it didn't move me enough to warrant finishing it.
Where to start on this one?! Well, I'll start with I loved this story.
Frank Delaney is a master storyteller. Ben McCarthy, narrator/hero extraordinaire, tells us a story of his youth in a very intimate setting - almost making you feel as if you are sitting down with him listening while he reminisces. Set in mostly 1930's Ireland, you learn how his life forever-changed the day his father abandoned their family to join Venetia Kelly's Traveling Show.
At first it took me a little bit to get into the story only because it starts off with a lot of background information on both Ben and Venetia. So there are two storylines - Venetia's bohemian upbringing and then Ben who's always been protected and pampered by his doting partents - that is, until the day his father up and leaves and his mother begs him to chase down his father and bring him back home. Through Ben's journey with the Traveling Show you get a glimpse of the tumultuous political situation Ireland was in during the 1930's. I think Mr. Delaney was superb in mixing fiction with non-fiction. You really had a grip on the political atmosphere of the 30's and what a role it played on every day lives.
Now, keeping in mind that there is more than one story line at the beginning of the book, once these story lines come together and everything starts to fit together - it all weaved into this fantastic coming-of-age story, with an unexpected romance, mysteries to be solved and a journey through Ireland that introduces you to many a lovely character (each with their own story to tell).
Venetia Kelly's Traveling Show is an all-around perfect novel. There were times where I laughed and others where I cried and even others that I felt awed by it - all in all a very worthwhile read.
on August 4, 2014
One of Frank Delaney's novels was entitled "The Last Storyteller", and itinerant storytellers have been an age old institution in Ireland as well as in many other lands. Well, Delaney is a master storyteller and this entire book is a masterful story in the grand tradition. It is also in the grand Irish tradition of a legend or a myth. It has the "hero," the one telling the story and who is a true hero. It has a huge cast of characters. Of course there is Venetia, a beautiful, ultra-talented performer. She and Ben, the protagonist, are the primary focus. There's Mrs. Haas, a devoted servant/protector who dotes on Venetia and Ben. There is the villain, King Kelly, who, along with his minions, is the true "bad guy". There are several people who support and encourage Ben. The issue of Ben's parents is almost a whole "nother thing", but also a vital part of the story. There are moments of triumph, moments of worry and despair and at times deep sadness. Then, from time to time, the storyteller, Ben, launches out on digressions of varying degrees of importance, and here we learn a great deal about Irish history and culture, especially as it was in the early 1930's and later. Delaney has an amazing facility in the use of the English language. He uses just the right words, words which might not immediately come to the minds of us less talented folks. This book is gripping and hard to put down. The Irish are rightly known for their gift of gab, and Delaney certainly does have that gift!