‘To Andy and his parents, it looks like any other carnival: creaking ghost train, rusty rollercoaster and circus performers. But of course it isn’t. Drawn to the hall of mirrors, and enters and is hypnotised by the many selves staring back at him. Sometime later, one of those selves walks out and re-joins his parents – leaving Andy trapped inside the glass, snatched from the tensions of his suburban home and transported to a world where the laws of gravity are meaningless and time performs acrobatic tricks. And now an identical stranger inhabits Andy’s life, unsettling his mother with a curious blankness, as mysterious events start unfolding in their Irish coastal town…’
There is something I find very special and very haunting about Carnivals or as it may be commonly known the Circus. Something that’s quite magical and arrestingly captivating whether this is due to the wonder of the circus with its Big Top, Clowns, High Wire death defying stunts; or the oddities and peculiarities that surface in Freak Shows, we can’t help but stand and watch with awe. Jordan’s ‘Carnivalesque’ serves up a large helping of all of the above and much more.
Neil Jordan is an Academy Award winning writer ‘The Crying Game’ (1992) and a BAFTA winning writer ‘The End of the Affair’ (1999) he has also directed some wonderfully cinematic films such as ‘Interview with a Vampire’ (1994), ‘The Butcher Boy’ (1997), ‘Breakfast on Pluto’ (2005) and ‘The Brave One’ (2007). Jordan brings his award winning writing prowess to this delicate and intriguing coming-of-age story which enables the reader to enter a cinematically infused world of ‘carnie’ life which springs fourth from the pages.
I don’t know whether this is a masterstroke by Neil Jordan or a coincidence to use the Carnival as his backdrop; with the Carnival having somewhat of a resurgence over recent years in book and on screen. The latter for example would refer to ‘American Horror Story Freak Show’ which is one of the most recent reincarnations of this beloved ‘carnie’ world. American Horror Story showcased in eerie high definition and fantastically tight scripts what being a part of this world meant; which was a contributing factor to making it a stand out series of the show.
Jordan therefore had a tough job ahead of him in creating something original where so many people would be waiting to make comparisons. Jordan though manages to transcend this comparison and in doing so brings his own sophisticated levels of wonderment to ‘Carnivalesque’ which gives him the perfect stage to showcase his talent as a writer and deliver with aplomb a story that reels you in from the very first chapter.
I personally have always been a huge fan of the Carnival ever since I was a little boy; I remember vividly staying up late to watch Sylvester McCoy playing Dr. Who in the Episode ‘The Greatest Show in the Galaxy’ broadcasted back in 1988. The show freaked out the six-year-old me and peaked my interest into the strange world of the Carnival scene ever since. Then there was the time I’d visited a Carnival with my parents and got lost in the hall of mirrors, terror crept in and possibly a little wee crept out, it was all in all a traumatic experience, one that I felt echoed ever so slightly within ‘Carnivalesque’. Then the mid-nineties brought with it ‘The X-Files’ which reinvented and propelled the ‘carnie’ way of life into the 20th Century with the freakishly good episode ‘Humbug’ aired in 1995. Why do I say all of this, why talk about all these incantations of the carnival? It’s because Neil Jordan’s ‘Carnivalesque’ is the next stage of evolution in this process; taking the best the genre (if you can call it that) has to offer and mixes it with his award winning writing style to create something truly brilliant and strikingly different from anything you’ve read before.
‘In the BH times they had been the stuff of legend, myth and fairy tale: they had hardly needed a name, so many names were thrust upon them. Ghoul, pooka, gnome, fairy, golem, banshee, nymph and dryad; the list goes on. Any hint that there was a separate race, living and breathing amongst the mortal ones, was covered by a fiction, a tale of otherworldly wonder and horror that was given the status of legend, remembered, retold, but hardly ever invented. So they cloaked themselves happily in these absurd tales, went about their lives, collecting their precious spices, were content to let any sighting be attributed to whatever legend fitted, golems, pooka, troll or banshee. In fact they were never averse to playing along; when a crop went bad or the milk turned sour or a drunken farmer happened upon one of them, at night on the lonely road home, or by a moonlit graveyard, they inhabited the legends and in time the legends inhabited them.’
The book contains a real mixture of genres which I feel only helps to emphasise the vivid, multi cultured, multifaceted environment of the carnival. Jordan weaves with a subtle brilliance the fable, mythological and fairy-tale genres into the lifeblood of ‘Carnivalesque’ drawing positive comparisons with the greats Brothers Grimm and Homer. Genre blending aside, Jordan is able to weave a type of kinetic energy into his writing that causes the reader to get swept away with the story causing the opening third and closing third of the book to disappear in the blink of an eye.
There are some beautiful scenes within this book and they come thick and fast at the beginning which if anything I feel is somewhat overloaded in this sense. Starting with the brilliantly paced and structured introduction of ‘Burleigh’s Hall of Mirrors’ and the whole ‘Body Snatchers’ mirrored reversal. This is followed by the dark and brooding Taw Wood of Eileen’s (Andy’s mother) childhood and the terror that it held within. There are a couple of scenes with Andy and hordes of rats and the story surrounding eerie Captain Mildew. With all of these scenes happening within the first third of the book, it does mean that the book settles into a little bit of a lull during its halfway point.
The lull does effect the flow of the book but Jordan uses this dip in tension and pace to help make his characters more approachable and likeable; enabling them to become well rounded multi-layered people rather than bit part players we don’t really care about. Jordan also in this middle third adds the history to our character’s circumstance, whilst also fleshing out the reason for their existence and their belief structures and what makes them ‘carnie folk’. The only issue I had with ‘Carnivalesque’ was it suffered from such a busy first act that it caused me to feel the shift into the second act; a bit like when you break heavily in a car. All my momentum was heading forwards at speed only for my breaks causing me to lurch forward sharply before speeding off into the sunset for the final third of the book.
‘Carnivalesque’ has all the wonder of the circus and all the fun of the fare, all the tension of the high wire and all the freakish delights one may expect to find lurking around in the shadows of the Big Top and at the Freak Shows of old; Jordan’s ability to blend genres with ease makes ‘Carnivalesque’ an extraordinary bewitching tale of intrigue and delight which showcases the mastery Academy Award winning writer Neil Jordan has over the written word.
Neil Jordan was born in 1950 in Sligo. His first book of stories, Night In Tunisia, won the 1979 Guardian fiction prize and his subsequent critically acclaimed novels include The Past, Sunrise with Sea Monster, Shade and Mistaken. The films he has written and directed have won multiple awards, including an Oscar for The Crying Game, a Golden Bear at Venice for Michael Collins, a Silver bear at Berlin for The Butcher Boy and several BAFTAS for Mona Lisa and The End Of The Affair. He is an Officier of the French Ordres Des Artes et Lettres. He lives in Dublin.
Carnivalesque was published by Bloomsbury Books on 23rd February 2017.
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Review by Ross Jeffery
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