Synopsis: It’s 1993, and Generation X pulses to the beat of Kurt Cobain and the grunge movement. Sixteen-year-old Maggie Lynch is uprooted from big-city Chicago to a windswept town on the Irish Sea. Surviving on care packages of Spin magazine and Twizzlers from her rocker uncle Kevin, she wonders if she’ll ever find her place in this new world. When first love and sudden death simultaneously strike, a naive but determined Maggie embarks on a forbidden pilgrimage that will take her to a seedy part of Dublin and on to a life- altering night in Rome to fulfill a dying wish. Through it all, Maggie discovers an untapped inner strength to do the most difficult but rewarding thing of all, live.
I finished reading the Carnival at Bray by Jessie Anne Foley last week, and I forced myself to not write a review immediately or even think too hard about star ratings because this book, my friends, was teetering on the fence between four stars and five stars. Let me be clear, this almost NEVER happens, so I needed the decision to be organic instead of one fueled by a book high. A week later, I find myself thinking that this book, without a doubt, is a five-star book. However, when I sat down to write the review, I was at a loss for words.
I can tell you that you should read this book because it takes place in Ireland, and all books that take place in Ireland are instantly on my wish list. I can tell you that this book rocks a pretty great playlist because 90’s alternative music was boss. I can tell you this book tackles some pretty heavy issues like mental illness and divorce and sex and totally uprooting a family and flying it clear across an ocean for a fleeting moment of love. I can tell you that the prose is poetic without slipping into the realm of “purple prose”, that the author made a good choice by writing it in third person because it would probably become too melodramatic otherwise, that the narration seems stoic sometimes understated, which somehow only plays up the gravity of the conflicts Maggie, our main character, faces. I can tell you that every character is wonderfully developed and charming and utterly flawed. And…did I mention it takes place in Ireland?
But, what I’m truly struggling with is verbalizing all of the abstract feelings I have about this book. I can’t adequately explain the light I felt emanating from me every night Maggie visited Dan Sean, an elderly Irishman, who somehow understood Maggie better than anyone else. Or when Maggie tasted freedom when chasing after Italy or Nirvana tickets or a boy she loved. Nor can I adequately explain how heavy my heart-felt when she was uprooted and transplanted in this foreign country where she was always the outsider. Or every time she was with that skeevy fellow, Paul. Or as she watched her uncle disintegrate. The Carnival at Bray is a fairly short novel at only 230 pages, yet it took me nearly two weeks to read because it was such an emotional novel; it’s like it knocked the wind right out of me every day I read the book.
I only wish this book was around when I was 17 and not 27. It’s a coming of age novel I would have carried with me always like Stephan Chbosky’s the Perks of Being a Wallflower or Joe Meno’s Hairstyles of the Damned or Ellen Wittlinger’s Hard Love.
Read this book. Read the Carnival at Bray because it’s real and it’s raw and Maggie’s story matters.
[On an unrelated matter, I wasn’t really sure how to categorize this book. Is it contemporary fiction? Is it historical fiction? It’s pretty strange to think my childhood happened long enough ago that it could now be considered “historical”.]