Venetia Kelly's Traveling Show: A Novel by Frank Delaney
Summary (from Frank Delaney.com): January 1932: While Ireland roils in the run-up to the most important national election in the Republics short history, Ben MacCarthy and his father watch a vagabond variety revue making a stop in the Irish countryside. After a two-hour kaleidoscope of low comedy, Shakespearean recitations, juggling, tumbling, and other entertainments, Bens father, mesmerized by Venetia Kelly, the troupe's magnetic headliner, makes a fateful decision: to abandon his family and set off on the road with Miss Kelly and her caravan. Ben's mother, shattered by the desertion, exhorts, Find him and bring him back, thereby sending the boy on a Homeric voyage into manhood, a quest that traverses the churning currents of Ireland's fractious society and splinters the MacCarthy family.
Interweaving historical figures including W.B. Yeats and a host of unforgettable creationsKing Kelly, Venetia's violent, Mephistophelean grandfather; Sarah Kelly, Venetia's mysterious, amoral mother; and even a truth-telling ventriloquist's dummy named Blarney. Frank Delaney unfurls a splendid narrative that spans half the world and a tumultuous, eventful decade.
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!