The Carnival at Bray: Review

May 28, 2015 2015, 4.5 star books, contemporary, historical, Kim 24 ★★★★½

The Carnival at Bray: ReviewThe Carnival at Bray by Jessie Ann Foley
Published by Elephant Rock Books on October 1st, 2014
Genres: contemporary, historical
Pages: 240
Format: Paperback
Source: Borrowed
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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 »

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.


kim teal








24 Responses to “The Carnival at Bray: Review”

  1. Katie @ Bookish Illuminations

    A wonderful review, Kim! I think I saw this on your Goodreads recently and added it to my own. I’m definitely interested in reading this–like Pili, I was 14 in 1994 so I’m wanting to give this one a shot. I wonder what I’ll think about the ending–like you, I tend to like more open conclusions in some cases, so we’ll see what I think about this one.
    Katie @ Bookish Illuminations recently posted…An Award Winner: The Crossover (2014) by Kwame Alexander

    • Kim

      Oh, Pili, I really, really hope you would give it a shot! It’s beautifully written and atmospheric. And you really like Ireland/Irish things, I thought, right?? Plus, Maggie is your contemporary! AND being a Nirvana fan? Combined with all of the other things that make this a magical read? It seems like you should be 100% sure about this one to me. :p
      Kim recently posted…BEA 2015: Event Recap + Giveaway

  2. Nikki

    There doesn’t seem to be much literature out right now that are set in this very interesting time period. I think it’ll be interesting to read a coming of age set in the 90s.

    • Kim

      There isn’t! Which makes this one all the more alluring and intriguing. It’s perfect for today’s 30 somethings who would’ve been Maggie’s contemporaries. In ten more years maybe I’ll start getting books with teens from the early 00’s and I can relive my own teen years reflected back through “historical” YA!
      Kim recently posted…BEA 2015: Event Recap + Giveaway

  3. Andrea G

    Haven’t seen reviews of this book yet, but your review has really got my interest. Interesting its a Printz book. But then Printz winners seem to get jipped compared to other award winners. And Ireland and the early 1990’s sounds great.

    • Kim

      Yeah, this one won an Honor, not the Medal, but it’s definitely still an under the radar read. It’s honestly so heartening to see a book from such a small press be able to get such recognition. I wish more people have read it, though! Hopefully you’ll give it a try and find it just as enchanting as I did. :)
      Kim recently posted…BEA 2015: Event Recap + Giveaway

  4. Michelle

    I’ve been seeing this around a lot lately, and honestly I added it to my to-read as soon as I saw it was set in Ireland. But your lovely review has convinced me I really need to read this soon, Kim! :)
    Michelle @ The Unfinished Bookshelf
    Michelle recently posted…Monthly Wrap: May (2015)

    • Kim

      Oh have you?? That is such a relief to hear because this is one that definitely deserves more buzz than it’s received (even with winning a Printz Honor and all). If you like things set in Ireland (I’m a total sucker!) I’m sure you’ll enjoy this one if for nothing else than the misty atmosphere. But there’s so much more to love too!
      Kim recently posted…BEA 2015: Event Recap + Giveaway

    • Kim

      Thank you so much, Angie! I really hope you do give it a shot. I think even if you don’t have a personal connection to the time period (and I mean, I was alive but rather young so it’s kind of halfway for me) this is a super affecting book and a universal coming of age story. It’s really easy to see why this one won a Printz Honor. Definitely well deserved.
      Kim recently posted…BEA 2015: Event Recap + Giveaway

  5. Jessie Foley

    Thank you so much for this lovely review, Kim! Reading these blogs from true book lovers like you has been such a rewarding experience with The Carnival at Bray. I truly appreciate it!!
    Jessie Foley recently posted…Review in Lit-Up Review

    • Kim

      Oh my goodness, Jessie! Thank YOU so much for writing such a wonderful book. A lot of realistic fiction doesn’t really speak to me (I’m a fantasy/sci fi kind of gal), but your book so gorgeously spoke to the confusions, and frustrations, and thrills of being a teenager so perfectly. I’m so looking forward to what comes next for you! Many congrats on the very well deserved Printz honor too!
      Kim recently posted…Classic Readalong Discussion: Hatchet

    • Kim

      It’s a must read if you like music in stories, first love in stories, grief and overcoming adversity. And I guess also if you just enjoy super well written stories that encompass all the messiness and gloriousness of life! So, you know, it’s for everyone. :) Do check it out!
      Kim recently posted…Classic Readalong Discussion: Hatchet

    • Kim

      Then it sounds like you would adore this book! The writing is so lyrical and so lovely too. She really captures both the messiness and beauty that are all part of the teenage experience. This is definitely one of my favorite realistic fiction novels ever!
      Kim recently posted…Classic Readalong Discussion: Hatchet

    • Kim

      It’s not normally my type of book, either, I don’t think. And I’m sad to think that I probably would never have even found this lovely little book if it hadn’t won a Printz Honor. This is the sort of novel that rewards a reader for having patience in the telling of a tale full of mistakes and first times and all the messy, rough judgments of a teenager. It’s sort of magical too, though, in how it captures first experiences. I hope you’ll give it a try!
      Kim recently posted…Classic Readalong Discussion: Hatchet

  6. J. Oh

    I hadn’t heard about this book before, but now I really want to read it. Thank you so much for this lovely review. :)

    • Kim

      It really hasn’t gotten much buzz (despite winning a Printz Honor!) so I’m just trying to do my part and spread the word! I’m glad I’ve gotten you interested and I hope you love it just as much as I did!
      Kim recently posted…Classic Readalong Discussion: Hatchet