Carnivalesque (2017): Neil Jordan


Everyone knows that circuses are magical places, but they can be dangerous too, subversive, circumventing the rules of society, propriety and even reality. One day, young Andy loses himself in the hall of mirrors in a carnival sideshow. When he emerges some hours later, he both is and is not himself: that is to say, his body is unchanged, but the thing inside him is no longer Andy; or, at least, not the boy he was before. That old Andy, or his essence, is trapped within the speckled glass of the mirror-maze, snatched or changed, call it what you will, and ready to be drawn out into the inner life of this fantastical place. Part fable, part fantasy, part horror-story, this novel is rooted in a strong concept but preserves its enigma too fiercely, to the point that the reader never quite comes to engage emotionally with its character or narrative.

Andy – or Dany, as he becomes in this twisted-about world – is pulled from the mirror by Mona, the aerialist with a girl’s body and ancient hands. She soothes the fretful memories that are already receding within him, of a once-loved mother and a distracted father, and the silence that has grown up between them, and offers Dany a new chance. The carnival has a place for him, if he will take it, among the strange and the outcast and the lost. All he has to do is devote himself to the work. And so he does, melding into this busy society of roustabouts and carnies, while Mona looks on. In an age when runaways and changelings are few, she finds herself growing to cherish this dynamic boy and she hopes, as she has for generations, to find a companion worthy to endure. For that’s the only way, now, as Mona herself once learned to endure, now that the originals are dying out, worn to shreds by eternal youth and the growing, seductive call of the Fatigue.

Andy’s parents don’t notice at first that their son is no longer himself, putting it down to the changes of adolescence working their transformation on his spirit. By the time they do come to realise that something is wrong, it’s late. Much too late. And even then the knowledge comes in threads, creeping in, unwillingly. And Andy’s mother Eileen watches this stranger, this creature, in their midst and wonders fretfully whether this has all been her fault – remembering again the peddlar of mirrors and fortunes who came to tell her of a promised child, and the dark, isolated wood in which she once dreamed a day away, with consequences that may only now be coming to light. And then there’s Andy himself, or the thing we should call Andy. For this being knows that there is something else out there, waiting for it, calling to it, something characterised by its thirst for destruction.

This is a book which draws you in with one premise and then, halfway through, gradually leads you into an entirely different genre. It begins with the common premise that circuses are somehow set apart, places for the extreme or the mysterious, as we’ve seen in The Night Circus or Pantomime. But the carnival is only the doorway into a rippling hinterland of myth, which promises to be rich with backstory, and this is where I found the book less successful. Jordan wants his carnies to be mysterious and he succeeds, but he keeps them so enigmatical that it’s sometimes hard to understand exactly what’s going on and why. There are so many hints and half-explanations that you find yourself itching to know more, to understand exactly how and when and who… but I didn’t feel that this was explained to any satisfaction. I appreciate that in a book like this, the author’s sleight-of-hand can be one of its key virtues, but I feel that a novel has to take us behind that scintillating surface to understand the complexity of it all. Here I was kept at such a distant that I found it hard to connect with any of the characters, and when the promised great conflict comes along, it’s treated with almost dismissive brevity. It’s a style that leaves you half-satisfied, your relationship with the book tantalising but unconsummated, and it becomes all the more frustrating because the ideas are so very engaging.

It isn’t a poor book by any means and it offers some satisfying hours of eerie chills, but on balance I personally found it too much like a character sketch, without the depth to pull me in – to borrow an analogy from the book, I felt as if I was constantly trapped on the outside of the mirror, without being able to push myself through into the world beyond.

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.

5 thoughts on “Carnivalesque (2017): Neil Jordan

      • Ana says:

        So true, especially if the majority does not agree. I remember seeing many 5 star reviews back when I read and reviewed this.

      • The Idle Woman says:

        After using Netgalley for some time, I’ve come to the conclusion that one has to be VERY careful about the flood of five star reviews that accompany a new book. Of course people do have differing opinions, and I’m sure that the vast majority are written with sincere admiration, but in at least two cases I know that the five-star reviews were written by people who hadn’t read any more than the blurb that went with a book. Caveat emptor, and all that… 😉

      • Ana says:

        Oh goodness, really? I thought that would be valid for GoodReads and Amazon since anyone can write them, even authors’ friends, but I had hoped Netgalley would be impervious to that. It does make sense, though. Some reviews I see there don’t seem to have much thought to them, especially the five-star ones. Thank you for pointing it out, I shall have to trust my judgement a bit more in the future!

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