Friday, October 30, 2015

Book Review: The Carnival at Bray

This is another example of a debut novel displaying great stylistic ability. There are many things I think author Jessie Ann Foley nailed in this novel, The Carnival at Bray. She presented a realistic teen character with a strong personality and equally strong voice. She captured a time and place very well. She evoked an emotional response and a sense of empathy in the reader for her main character and many of the minor characters, as well.

I think if I had been the kind of person who deeply connects to popular music, this novel would have struck an even more significant chord with me. Alas, I have never really been all that absorbed in popular music. I am far more moved by things like classical music or Christian music or, perhaps strangest of all, brass band music. Thus, I know, one of the great strengths of this novel was basically lost on me as a reader. Even still, I could appreciate the young character's strong affinity for the music her uncle made and loved. This created a depth of connection which played a key role in the empathy surging in the reader when their relationship is shattered.

Apart from the mother (portrayed as a ditzy woman who is more consumed with finding love than with being a responsible parent), I felt drawn to the characters. The elderly gentleman who is esteemed by the whole village. The doting and concerned Irish nuns. The young lad dealing with a schizophrenic mother and wishing for the type of relationship where he could actually have a normal teenage fight with his parental figure. And especially, the struggling main character who is intent upon finding her place in the world.

It is perhaps the setting of the novel I delighted in the most. Sixteen year old Maggie Lynch, an Irish-American living in Chicago in the early 1990s (a full decade after I lived there), is plucked from her familiar surroundings and transplanted to Bray, a small town in Ireland, to live there with her newly married mother, her Irish stepfather, and her younger sister, Ronnie. In this coming-of-age tale, Maggie deals with loneliness, identity-issues, young love, and grief. Ireland was vibrant and alive for me in this book (helped all the more by hundreds of photos I have recently viewed on my niece's Facebook from her trip to Ireland). The details of both Chicago and Ireland all felt dead-on and created the perfect atmosphere for this tale of battling isolation and forging identity.

I know teenagers will feel immensely drawn to this novel. My only hesitation goes back to my personal pet peeves against all the junk authors feel they need to fill a YA novel with in order to appeal to young adult readers. Does an adventure always have to include sexual exploits, drug use, alcohol consumption, and rebellion against parents?

I'm sure the author was attempting to reach out to young readers by instructing them on the difference between good sex and bad sex. Maggie gives in to a sexual encounter with someone she isn't all that attracted to, simply because the opportunity is there and it seems like the thing to do. Then, she experiences sex on a whole new plane when she is intimate with a far more compelling and appealing individual. Within months, Maggie has "fallen in love" with this second boy and has a far more satisfying experience. She has only known him for a space of months and yet, she is ready to "know" him. And I find myself, as a parent, thinking "would I want my teenage daughter to think that sex is the next inevitable step when you believe you have fallen in love?" I say "believe you have fallen" because so often young girls think they have discovered love only to later understand that their emotions betrayed them into mistaking attraction and chemistry for something stronger than it actually is.

I know I am fighting a losing battle. YA novels are not going to clean up simply because I believe they can tell a good story without muddying the waters with so much bad behavior and teenage fumbling. Teenagers do fumble. Teenagers do make mistakes. They have sex with others simply because they think it is expected of them or because they think what they have found is going to last forever. They give into drug use because the joint is passed their way and their peers convince them that it is stupid to not smoke it simply because it is labelled illegal.

And, amazingly, I still enjoyed the novel despite content riddled with drugs, alcohol, sex, and rebellion. I enjoyed the adventure. I embraced the characters. I loved the writing. I wouldn't steer teenagers away from this book, but I would want to discuss some of the messages pushed in the story - especially the one that "There will always be time to do the responsible thing. Before that, live." As if, being irresponsible is the path to truly living. As if your teenage years are splayed out in front of you for the very purpose of exploring all the things you might not get to do in life if you turn them down in your moment of freedom. As if teens are meant to behave irresponsibly, an expected journey, in their path to maturation. I can't embrace the message, even if the writing was great, the characters realistic, the setting stunning, and the plot development flawless.


Amy Sorensen said...

I'm glad you didn't hate it!

The sex/drugs/rebellion angle in a lot of YA is a struggle for me too. Since I *was* a wild child I connect with the characters and their reasoning. Since I *am* a parent, I just want to shake them. (And my wild-child self.) I think they are in YA novels because they are in YA lives, and it's a balance...lean too far and it starts to feel sanctimonious to them, the other way it's encouraging them.

Your ideas have made me think more about what YA *might* look like through a different lens.

(I'm having IDEAS! :) )

Wendy said...

Amy - there was a lot to really like about the novel and I'm glad you understand my struggle. While I understand that it is a fact of life for many teen readers, I just don't want it to end up being glorified or normalized.

If you are having IDEAS because of my review, I am absolutely thrilled and honored. I would love to hear your ideas or read even a partial of an idea. Even more than producing my own writing, I always hope to encourage other writers to pursue theirs.