Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Review: Venetia Kelly's Traveling Show by Frank Delaney

Perhaps my Irish blood has been too diluted or maybe it has been recalled entirely but I don't seem to enjoy Irish storytelling with all of its attendant divagations as much as I probably should given my heritage. Odd this, given my own propensity for rambling far afield of the topic. But the wandering digressions present in this book, as in so many Irish tales, made for a slow and meandering read for me. Couple this with much information about the political situation in Ireland in the 1930's and, well, I put the book down as often as I picked it up. Of course, the narrator tells us early on that both digressions and frank discussions of politics are deeply woven into the heft of the Irish character. Obviously my own sketchy connection to Ireland, traced back to a single great grandparent, is too small to count anymore since these two things are as scantily represented in my reading as possible. Occasionally I even forget to wear green on St. Patrick's Day for heaven's sake.

Ben MacCarthy is only 18 when his father takes him to see a traveling show. His father is enamoured of the show's headliner, Venetia Kelly, a young woman magnetic, charming, beautiful, and far too young for him but who welcomes the older MacCarthy into the crew of the show that evening, leaving young Ben to go home alone and break the devastating news to his mother. Ben's mother asks the impossible of her only son: to go and bring his father home. And so begins Ben's adventure through the world of vaudeville, dirty politics, and a doomed, incendiary love affair. While Ben grapples with his father's obsession for Venetia, a political charlatan and proponent of Fascism is stealing the family farm from right under Ben's mother's nose. Flipping between the situation with Venetia and that of the farm, Delaney weaves the personal and the political together tightly.

The narrative is being told by Ben many years after the events of the story and includes research about the people involved which he didn't know when he was freshly 18. The form works although it does allow for increased digressions and less of a sense of urgency than would have been likely had his character been telling the story in the thick of the events. There is an large cast of characters as well and the narrative jumps around to follow different people as their impact on the story waxes and wanes. So while it is told in a basically linear fashion, there are all sorts of tendrils creeping away from the central plot line. Ben's character addresses the reader throughout the narrative, making the reader feel as if he or she was sitting listening to a master storyteller beside the fire. And while the scope of the novel is sweeping, Delaney's narrative choice makes if feel smaller and more personal than it might.

As I mentioned above, I personally had some difficulty with the meandering of the tale but many other reviewers found the digressions added immeasurably to their experience. In pulling in so many greater issues, in terms of the politics and the national character of the Irish, I found myself at a remove from the characters which made it hard for me to feel sympathy for them in their situations, even when the most naive and trusting among them were being manipulated. Although the ventriloquist's dummy named Blarney was important symbolically, his inclusion outside the parameters of the show itself was a bit disturbing. Over all, I have to say I was a little disappointed in the book, perhaps less for what I read than for the loss of my expectations. And maybe I should go back and check my Fran's nationality again because I don't seem to have inherited the Irish adoration of theater, politics, and divagation along with my freckles.

Thanks to LibraryThing Early Reviewers for my copy of this book to review.


  1. Maybe this is a case of the audiobook being the better choice. I recently read a glowing review for listening to it. I think the same could hold true for The Unnamed (reviewed today on Bermudaonion). I listened and thought it was fabulous. I remember thinking as I listened to it that I'm not sure I would have enjoyed reading the book. I guess it's just an individual preference. Also, in both audiobooks the authors read their own words.

  2. I'm sorry this one didn't work for me, but it does sounds like a type of book I would enjoy.

  3. I'm listening to this book right now and while I'm enjoying hearing the author speak, the story itself is just not holding my attention.

  4. I'm planning on trying this one for my next audio book. I'll let you know what I think. Sorry it was not a home run for you...

  5. I'm sorry you didn't enjoy this, but it's nice to hear a review that varies from the raves I've read so far. I think I will probably enjoy this one very much, but it obviously isn't for everyone. I've linked to your review on the Ireland Challenge page.

  6. I really enjoyed this book overall, but it did take me about 70 pages to get used to the digressions and just go with the flow. Once he got to the meat of the story, the digressions didn't bother me so much.

    Diary of an Eccentric

  7. I really didn't mind the digressions and thought that the story was well done!


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