What if one morning your hard-working, loving, sensible father woke up and decided he wanted to run away with the circus? And then you had to tell your mother about it? This is only the beginning of Frank Delaney’s passionate bildungsroman—for there is worse to come. The coming-of-age story told by Benedict McCarthy is not only especially tough, it’s still haunting him in his old age. And if he’s telling it now, after being born in Ireland around 1914, he’s an elderly chap indeed.

Speaking of 1914, Delaney’s interweaving of Ben’s radical loss of innocence with Ireland’s own maturation is a touch of brilliance. The action takes place mostly in 1932, an election year. The McCarthys—Harry, Louise and Ben—live in a bucolic near-paradise in southwest Ireland. They love and respect one another, and one gets the feeling that if “The Catastrophe” (as they call the circus-disappearance-act) hadn’t happened, Ben would have never left home.

Traveling circuses and vaudeville troupes are fairly common and provide much-needed entertainment for hard-working folk like the McCarthys. Harry begins to attend Venetia Kelly’s Traveling Show, whose eponymous star is a beautiful, much younger woman with a shady background, though its shadiness isn’t all of her own doing. He falls insanely, adolescently in love with her, and the betrayed Louise tasks their son with bringing him back at all costs. The results are even more catastrophic.

The book’s complicated plot takes in such elements as embezzlement, murder, blackmail, Celtic myth, real-life figures like Eamon de Valera—who helps Ben in his quest to set his world aright—and a bitterly snarky ventriloquist’s dummy named Blarney. Delaney, once a judge for the Booker Prize, writes with a beauty, compassion and depth that reminds one of William Trevor. He also has a peculiarly Catholic belief in forgiveness and atonement, and there is much in this story to forgive and atone for. Venetia Kelly’s Traveling Show is an inventive, amazing work.

Arlene McKanic writes from Jamaica, New York.

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