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.