“Venetia Kelly…she became a young woman of remarkable talent and passion, and when she was thirty-two years old --- the year I met her --- she was drawn into a terrible intrigue that had a profound effect upon my parents and me.”
Ben MacCarthy narrates this story as he looks back to 1932, the year he was 18 and the year that dramatically altered the rest of his life. Until the night he met Venetia Kelly, Ben was a fairly typical Irish teenager for the day. His family owned a nice farm, his father and mother loved each other, and they held a position of respect among their friends and their community. It was an exciting time in young Ireland’s history. A struggling government had taken form and Eamon de Valera was about to be elected. Back then, politics were heating up as will happen when a country is struggling to find its footing. As relief, traveling shows were the rage; few automobiles existed, making travel difficult.
So that one fateful night, Ben’s father takes him to see the show. As he sits enraptured by the actors, he tells his son to go on home without him; he’s joining Venetia Kelly’s Traveling Show. Well, that’s some news! And, as you can imagine, it’s news that Ben’s mother does not take well at all. She sends Ben right out to bring back his father, essentially saying, “Don’t come home if he’s not with you.” Ben sets out to fulfill his mother’s wishes. While unsure how to accomplish his task, at least he is intrigued by the troupe.
Venetia Kelly is a woman born to entertain. Not only is she extraordinarily beautiful, she also has an almost magical quality about her. Nightly, she mesmerizes her audience, who goes wild over her dummy named Blarney. He sits on her knee as she puts words into his wooden mouth and even goes so far as to enter the upcoming race for election. The crowd loves it. They also enjoy the snippets of scenes from great plays that the company performs, allowing them to escape the travails of their everyday lives and forget for a while the strife facing their new land.
But Venetia is also a woman with a dark past, one that involves a shady politician by the name of “King” Kelly, who happens to be her grandfather. King Kelly likes getting what he wants, and what he wants is to run the country. He has big plans for Ireland. And Ben, along with his family, is part of those plans. But what King Kelly fails to figure in is Ben’s stubbornness and tenacity. Who would have thought that a boy could fight back so hard? And fight he does. One might think King Kelly chose the wrong fella to tangle with. But he has his own ways of fighting back --- some very deadly ways.
Throughout Ben’s telling of his story, there is a steady undercurrent of foreboding. For a man whose life was so carefree before the traveling show hit town, his life after takes countless treacherous turns, strengthening him, devastating him and ultimately leaving him a desperate and driven man.
VENETIA KELLY’S TRAVELING SHOW is a spectacular mystery, an engaging history, and a tragedy written with sometimes great humor and sometimes great humility. Once picked up, the only reason to put this book down is to keep it from ending. And once it has ended, it’s hard to resist starting it all over again, such is its power and its draw. It’s true what they say: The Irish are born storytellers, and Frank Delaney is a magnificent one. If he wasn’t your favorite author before now, he surely will be after you’ve read this outstanding novel.
Reviewed by Kate Ayers on January 24, 2011