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Thursday
Mar222012

The Mills of Imagination

Frank Delaney's The Last Storyteller

         

In an author’s note to his first novel, Ireland (2005), Frank Delaney suggests that “mere facts can never be enough” if one is to understand the Irish. “This is a country that reprocesses itself through the mills of its imagination,” merging myths with facts in order to tell its story.

This is something we all do, Delaney says, and in his trilogy of novels narrated by Irish folklorist and accidental adventurist Ben MacCarthy he demonstrates how “every legend and all mythologies exist to teach us how to run our days.” The life story begun in Venetia Kelly’s Traveling Show (2010) and continued in The Matchmaker of Kenmare (2011) concludes in The Last Storyteller.

Venetia Kelly’s Traveling Show starts with the birth of the title character on the first day of January 1900 in New York (“She sprang from the womb and waved to the crowd”). Thirty-two years later, when Ben is eighteen, he and Venetia meet, marry, and conceive, but are torn apart before the birth by a combination of family dysfunction and what Delaney describes as Ireland’s “wonderful new dramatic form—politics.” So begins Ben’s decades-long search for Venetia, which, in The Matchmaker of Kenmare, includes intrigue in wartime London, ventures behind enemy lines in Europe, a picaresque journey from New York to Kansas, and a brief encounter with Venetia on the Atlantic coast of Florida.

At the start of The Last Storyteller, it is 1956 and Ben is engaged in his job with the Irish Folklore Commission. His mentor in the Commission, James Clare, is ailing, and it falls to Ben to continue collecting stories from “the most powerful remaining storyteller in the country,” John Jacob Farrell O’Neill. O’Neill’s stories provide the myths that accompany the facts of Ben’s story, which quickly moves onto dangerous turf when Ben becomes unwillingly involved with Irish Republican activities that are both illegal and violent. With the threat of ramifications always looming, Ben goes about his official folklore business and learns that Venetia has returned to Ireland with her American husband, “Gentleman Jack” Stirling. Jack is an ill-tempered, brutal man, and Venetia serves as his assistant in a show featuring magic, pickpocketing, and hypnotism. Venetia has clearly been beaten down—literally and figuratively—and her theatrical life is a pale shadow of the rich entertainment she provided the Irish countryside with her show in the early 1930s.

Delaney skillfully weaves the stories of Ben’s activities and his attempt to liberate Venetia with the legends of the land as told by O’Neill. Along with recurring characters from the earlier novels, Delaney introduces several new and interesting personalities: O’Neill himself, from whom Ben learns the compelling art of storytelling; Randall Duff, a painter of whom Ben asks, “How did you paint a fish lustrous enough to make us gasp, while using as your model the naked body of a lovely girl not yet twenty?”; that lovely girl, Elma Sloane, caught between a violent father and a kind, elderly man who wants to marry her; Jimmy Bermingham, a would-be IRA assassin; Marian Killeen, a woman whose past dictates her future and who is pivotal in Ben’s deliberations about whether to rescue Venetia. And of course the dastardly Gentleman Jack.

All through the telling, the pleasure of Delaney’s language invites one to stop and read out loud. Simple descriptions like “The rain cleared, and a late sun wiped the sky clean” and “My boots clanging with false bravery on the metal of the bridge, I walked on” jump from the page and animate the reader’s imagination as if the storyteller were in the room. And that is the chief source of the satisfaction elicited by The Last Storyteller (and of all of Mr. Delaney’s output): Reading his work is to put yourself in the presence of a master. History, human nature, happiness, grief, humor, yearning, beauty, danger—all of these are confronted and transformed from quotidian to mythical to quotidian and back again, submerging the reader in the very substance of what it means to walk on earth.

 

 

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