Published by Elephant Rock Books on October 1st, 2014
Genres: contemporary, historical
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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.
The Carnival at Bray is the coming of age story of Maggie, a 16 year old American who, in 1994, finds herself suddenly moved to a remote Irish town. Is 1994 historical? I would say more yes than no. The time is sufficiently removed from ours with the biggest difference being that Maggie doesn’t have the luxury of Skype, Facebook, and all the modern conveniences of connection. Her isolation from her old life is near complete. An ocean removed from her family, it’s a void that she spends the book looking to fill.
Being a teenager is often tough at the best of times. When you’ve been completely removed from everything you know this only becomes that much harder. Bray is the sort of misty, coastal Irish town that could drown you in its dreary isolation and Maggie feels it keenly. She makes a few attempts at friendships with classmates, but struggles to fit in. It’s a sort of heart aching loneliness that is hard to see in such a good-hearted character.
But then, she thought…wasn’t that what growing up meant? Wasn’t it just a succession of actions and incidents where you break your childhood promises to yourself and do the very things you always said you wouldn’t do?
This is a story about relationships of all sorts, familial, platonic, and romantic. And all of the relationships in the story are wrought with such complexity, realism, and tenderness. Maggie finds it near unforgivable that her mother moved her across an ocean to marry a man she’s known for only 7 months, and their relationship is fraught with tension. But Foley is so good at giving little peeks into the humanity of others and at capturing Maggie’s wonder at discovering these glimpses. It’s always such a shock when we discover that our parents are also just people themselves.
The defining relationship of the novel is arguably between Maggie and her uncle Kevin. Only 10 years her elder, Kevin is the cool rocker uncle who sneaks Maggie out to attend a Smashing Pumpkins concert and lends her his annotated copies of literature. But he’s also plagued with troubles and addicted to heroin. Music is the binding force that unites Kevin and Maggie through all his pain and difficulty, and through all her loneliness and desperation to connect. And it’s not just music. This novel is also very much about the transcendent power of words in many forms–in music, in literature, in poetry.
When Maggie is gifted with two tickets to the attend a Nirvana concert in Rome in the spring of 1994, the novel becomes a sort of desperate adventure to make it to Rome. She is very much not allowed to fly to foreign countries with a boy (even when he’s a very nice boy) and miss a week’s worth of school to attend a Nirvana concert. It’s a whirlwind exciting, adventure sort of romance. So sure, this is a story about a girl who falls in love with a boy. And it’s touching, and engaging, and exciting, and sweet. But this story isn’t really about that. it is a story about a girl who is lost and then finds herself.
They would not remember that when the boy hugged her he held her so tightly that she dropped her candle into the mud and it burned out with an imperceptible hush, and her hands grazed the prickly hair at the nape of his neck, the beautiful inverted daub between the tendons, the living parts of him, simply and completely, to be known to each other.
There are just a few qualms with this novel. I wish that Maggie had been able to kindle and sustain peer relationships with girls. It’s nice that she has friends in Dan Sean (a centenarian) and Sr. Geneve (a septagenarian), but I wanted her to have more friends her age than just her boyfriend. I also wish, and maybe it is odd to wish this, that the ending had been more open. Maggie is only 17 and her life doesn’t need to be settled. View Spoiler »Especially when it’s such a huge decision as forever living your life in another country. « Hide Spoiler
This book was awarded the Printz Honor in 2015 and I am so glad of it. It’s sort of astonishing that such a small press book would be able to gather the attention of YMA voting committees, but I’m so glad that it has. Printz books and I usually don’t get along very well so this one was a very pleasant surprise. I wish all of the Printz books I’ve read were similarly engaging in the authenticity of their voice, the lyricism of the prose, and the depth of meaning.
That’s what living people do. They shatter and rebuild, shatter and rebuild, shatter and rebuild until they are old and worn and stooped from the work of it.
I think this book is especially for those who enjoyed Just One day in that it is also, in part, a story of an American in Europe going on an impulsive, romantic adventure; and also for fans of Tell the Wolves I’m Home for its tender portrayal of a niece/uncle relationship, realistic sister relationship, and of heart shaking grief.