Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Frank Delaney's "The Matchmaker of Kenmare": Book Review

This sequel to "Venetia Kelly's Traveling Show" (see my review) continues Ben McCarthy's search for his disappeared wife, combining this quest with his companionship of the titular character, Kate Begley. She's inherited her mother's skill of matchmaking, and matches made and the difficulty that Ben shares with Kate over their own intimate alliances comprises the theme of their adventure during the later part of WWII. Being both from officially neutral Ireland, their own political identity allows them to enter the battlegrounds of Western Europe, three times, as they seek Kate's own lost love and encounter the tensions of what neutrality demands from the pair.

Delaney teaches writing and he knows how to tell a good story. The title and cover make this seem like a light romance, but it's realistic and often sobering. He avoids sentiment and prefers understatement, while conveying a subtle mystery about Kate and her needle that locates lost people that parallels the curious nature of Venetia's articulations from her ventriloquized dummy, Blarney, that ran counter to the expected tone of his previous novel's plot. Here as in that book, there's hints of folklore that emerge, as in the "night of the wolf," that deepen the resonance of events. Delaney depicts the darker side of violence, whether in a sudden bombing of a village party, the shock of firearms, the lust for revenge, that overtakes otherwise sensible people caught up in private wars as well as world ones. He enriches Ben with a depth that he expresses naturally, and this novel reads smoothly, as if told by the teller as is the conceit, and fluently.

This novel's about obsession, of pursuit of a vanished partner. This unites Kate and Ben, awkwardly but firmly, across the three years of this story.  Ben tells the tale to his children, as a very old man. His idealism and his pain combine as he explains his decisions back then to them now. He was employed by the Irish government to collect folktales told by rural folk. His mentor taught him "that if you can tell yourself your own life story as though it were a legend, you can cure many of your ills."

Without divulging too much, the fringes of the war as seen by Ben and Kate show Delaney's skill; he integrates enough of the horror to plunge you in to the mayhem, but he sparingly relates the scenes so as to maximize their impact without exploiting the situations. One of Ben's first glimpses of the front as the Germans keep retreating: "a white pony sprawled in the road, his stomach burst like a rotten fruit; a headless black and white cow; three sheepdogs lying dead side by side on the street, as though they had a suicide pact."

He keeps an eye, from his officially neutral but secretly conniving pair of main characters, on humanity as it's warped and beaten down. As Ben helps Kate in her quest, his own recedes, under the pressure of WWII. They return to the battle front, unbelievably to Ben as well as both Nazis and Allies, to hunt for her vanished husband: "What did I find? If I expected water, I found blood. If I expected a soft breath, I found a gale. If I expected a mourner, I found a dervish."

Their neutral status allows Delaney a fresh perspective from which to view conflict, especially as the Irish people had emerged recently from their own bloody battles against first the British (why the Irish Free State chose neutrality is explained deftly) and then between themselves. Ben learns from his rare perspective from both sides in the war: "Enemies are natural creatures, like friends or lovers or couples." But not all are enemies, he finds. The novel does veer sharply in mood under mercurial Ben and determined Kate, and once in a while even if Ben explains the logic or the emotion why for these shifts, the plot does swerve, as perhaps life does with its own sudden shocks.

Late in this wide-roaming plot, Ben sums up what his search for his own lover has become: "I might be about to travel across America with a darling giraffe, a charming little pink pig, a fat man with a pigtail and no other hair of any kind, and" Kate "who could tell the future and find missing people using a needle, thread, and a map." Even in the closing scenes, it seems Ben cannot let go of his search for Venetia, while the affection Delaney shares for the quirks of traveling shows makes me wonder if even more can become a third novel.
(Posted to Amazon US 2-8-11 & Lunch.com 2-20-11)

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