Review: ‘The Carnival at Bray’ by Jessie Ann Foley

the carnival at bray_coverAs my New Year’s trip to Dublin and London draws nearer (120 days!), I figure I should start reading books that are (a) written by Irish writers, (b) set in Ireland or (c) both. So as I was scanning through the available Kindle books on the CPS Overdrive site (I’m clearly too lazy to seek out a library branch), “The Carnival at Bray” by Jessie Ann Foley caught my eye. It’s set in Ireland but written by a Chicagoan, so I fulfilled one of my requirements.

“The Carnival at Bray” takes readers back to 1993 at the height of the grunge movement. Sixteen-year-old Maggie Lynch is uprooted from Chicago and her rocker uncle Kevin to a town just south of Dublin on the Irish Sea. She finds familiarity in a friendship with Dan Sean O’Callaghan, the oldest man in Bray, and first love with Eoin. When things start to look up, her uncle suddenly dies. Struggling to find her place in Bray, she embarks on a life-altering journey to Rome to fulfill a dying wish. On this pilgrimage, Maggie finds the strength to do the most difficult thing: live.

Music is at the heart of this novel. More specifically, grunge music is at the heart of this novel. Foley even created the book’s soundtrack on 8tracks. Maggie adores her uncle and godfather Kevin, a 26-year-old philosophic guitarist in a band called Selfish Fetus — “he emanated the nervous energy of someone who is close enough to touch a dream they’ve been chasing all their life” (p. 9). The weekend before she moves to Ireland, Kevin takes her to her first rock concert: the Smashing Pumpkins at the Metro Theater.

When they came on again, in a blinding burst of white, the opening chords of ‘Rocket’ began like an explosion in the middle of Maggie’s chest. She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to contain it. … The explosion of music that had started in her chest was now expanding outward and outward, encompassing the entire room, the entire city, the entire world. (15)

Most of us have experienced something akin to that at a concert, right? One that comes to the forefront of my mind is the last OK Go concert I went to, also at the Metro Theater. There’s something thrilling about the way live music fills your body — you never really want it to end.

To fulfill Kevin’s wish, Maggie runs away from home to see Nirvana perform at the Palaghiaccio in Rome. And getting to Rome wasn’t easy. Two people she met at her hostel steal her tickets, and she, along with Eoin, track down the thieves with enough time to catch a flight to Italy. There, Maggie attends the concert of a lifetime.

Maggie felt weightless, floating away from all that limited her, her life growing louder and louder — more shaped, more possible — along with the music. She didn’t need drugs to find transcendence. She didn’t need beer or whiskey or wine. The music was enough. (188-189)

A few pages later, Maggie sums up the concert: “They had just witnessed something important. The anthem of our generation.” Throughout the whole book, I saw just how Nirvana and other grunge bands shaped Kevin’s and subsequently Maggie’s life. I never really witnessed Nirvana’s effect, seeing as I had just turned two when they performed in Rome. I thought about my own life and what music influenced me. What is my generation’s Nirvana? I honestly don’t have an answer.

But the book wasn’t just about grunge music. It was about growing up. It was about learning to find your place in the world. It was about finding, and choosing, life. Foley wrote a story where Maggie had to choose for herself what she — not her mother — wanted. She puts the future in her own hands.

And Foley’s narrative style was beautiful. I knew right from the first chapter when Maggie was standing along beneath the Ferris wheel — “its great twinkling arms reaching up in spindly supplication to the low sky” — her mind on the pervasive sea.

On sunny days it glinted from the crests of hills or between the walls of buildings, and at night, while Maggie lay in bed, its restless sighing shaped a feeling in her chest that she couldn’t quite name. Even her clothes and hair began to take on its fishy, expansive smell, but eventually, and sooner than she expected, she stopped noticing, the way a woman stops noticing the scent of her own perfume. (7)

There are so many moments where I felt as if I were actually in Ireland. The passages describing Chicago felt even more real, but a lot of that was because I knew where those places were. I had been to a concert at the Metro. I’ve walked down Milwaukee. Now that I’ve lived in Chicago for a year, I can picture the neighborhoods and the streets Foley mentioned.

Though this is one of my favorite YA novels that I’ve read in the past few years, there were parts where I paused to question. Or throw my Kindle down on the bed and walk around before I could read the next part (I only did this once, when Maggie and Eoin said “I love you” after about two months of getting to know each other).

My main critique is that while Maggie is a well-written female protagonist, she doesn’t really have any female friends or mentors. Maggie is semi-friends with Aíne for a couple of months, and the friendship crumbles after Aíne sides with her boyfriend after he insults Maggie’s uncle. Maggie’s relationship with her mom is rocky and they each misunderstand the other. Maggie’s strongest relationships are with her uncle Kevin, Dan Sean O’Callaghan and Eoin. I would’ve liked to see Aíne become Maggie’s friend in Ireland, the one who helps her get to Rome to fulfill her uncle’s wish. I would’ve liked Maggie to find a mentor in Sister Geneve, who was Maggie’s theology and English teacher.

When I’m done with this challenge and I have a little more money to spend on books, “The Carnival at Bray” will be on my list of books to buy. Or if someone wants to get me a copy for my birthday, that’d be cool, too.

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