Book Review: Venetia Kelly’s Traveling Show by Frank Delaney

March 2, 2010

Frank Delaney’s most recent novel is a misty-sweet race through softcore Irish political history, country farms and criminal intrigue. We watch a father’s obsession turn into a son’s fate, in the framework of the Vaudevillian traveling show of the novel’s title character.

This book is charming: Delaney knows how to woo his Ire-phile gaga American audience, and he’s keyed right into his early-1930s setting. Pedestaled love object Venetia is a vaporous, attenuated maiden straight out of an Art Nouveau lithograph. Cars have strange names and feel magical. The denizens of Irish villages are borderline adorable, with folksy sobriquets like Large Lily (who Ben’s father claims has a “special dispensation from the pope to wear her legs upside down”).

A menace looms behind everything, which our narrator—the son, the appealingly-named Benedict MacCarthy—reminds us at the outset of nearly every chapter. Ben’s tension-building passages have a purposely breathless “you’re not going to believe what happened” quality. We are told to expect much.

The story an aged Ben is weaving here, in hindsight, a memoir, includes what he calls Digressions (some Important, some not so). Some of these digressions include allusions to the book’s most intriguing theme, that of mythology and storytelling. In the vein of mythologists like Joseph Campbell, Delaney explores some interesting angles of hero transformation and the blurring of lines between reality and story. Some of the novel’s most interesting characters, bad guy King Kelly and good guy James Clare, are outstanding storytellers. It is in these stories subservient to the main story that I found the most pleasure.

There’s something at odds between these themes of myth and the book’s overall come-hither openness, however. Most of the time, the tone feels like heartwarming, book club fodder, clearly made for Americans (were my Irish aunts to read this book, I kind of picture them starting to roll their eyes by the second or third page).

There’s nothing drastically wrong here: the characters are well-tuned and considered, the plot—at least for the first two-thirds of the book—engrossing. But the novel starts taking steps in a deeper direction only to succumb to the demands of the action-packed storyline. This is a pity.

The other pity is the plot as the book roils to a close. Ben spends so much time telling us to expect so much, building our expectations. When events finally do tangle up and burst into a denouement, it feels rushed and unsatisfying. The plot, so easy to follow for so much of the book, gets distracted-feeling and harried. If anything, there’s just a bit too much plot.

This is a great candidate for a travel read, and is enjoyable and brisk. It’s so fun to read that it is hard not to expect just a bit more of it.

4.0 stars
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