Carnivalesque by Neil Jordan – book review

by Nicholas Reid / 12 October, 2017
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Neil Jordan: confused mythology. Photo/Alamy

The prose is rich, poetic and evocative, but Neil Jordan’s novel has a crowded agenda.

To many fantasy writers, mirrors are magical things. Alice went through a looking glass. The Lady of Shalott was doomed to look at the world as reflected in a mirror. And a weird psychosexual land lurked on the other side of a mirror in Jean Cocteau’s Orphée. But the creepiest of all mirror stories is the German fantasy The Student of Prague, in which the student’s reflection is his evil doppelgänger, who breaks out of the mirror and takes over his life. There’s a touch of The Student to the premise of Carnivalesque, the story of a changeling and the latest novel by Irish film director, scriptwriter and novelist Neil Jordan.

Young Andy, a lonely teenager and only child, walks into the Hall of Mirrors of a tatty travelling carnival and gets absorbed into a mirror, while his reflection wanders off and takes his place with Andy’s family. Andy’s parents are surprised that he now talks in a toneless, emotionless voice and suddenly has a formal turn of phrase – but they – uneasily – accept him as their son. Meanwhile, the “real” Andy is pulled out of the mirror by a member of the carnival, which proves to be a place of magic. He travels, works as a carnie and learns their ancient lore while partly longing for home. But he cannot escape.

Clearly not aimed at children, despite its magical premise, Carnivalesque intentionally has much adult resonance. Best are the scenes where the changeling Andy interacts with his mum. It’s a nightmarish version of that moment when a mother realises her child is no longer a biddable infant and has suddenly become a moody teenager. Or like those times when parents wonder how they could have produced things as alien as their own children.

But the parts dealing with the “real” Andy are more muddled, and they take over the novel. By his imagery, Jordan seems to intend the carnival to symbolise an older Ireland that is now vanishing. The carnies are supernatural beings, sprites, goblins, pookas who have long memories of a pre-Christian Ireland, the Great Famine and mass emigration, and the peasant life that used to be. It’s made explicit in a sequence where bulldozers are smashing up an old carnival ground.

This is a busy novel with a crowded agenda. The marital problems of Andy’s parents. The implied commentary on a changing Ireland. The teen’s desire for wild adventure counterpointed by yearning for the security of home. Touches of sexual awakening. However, the mythology Jordan has concocted becomes confused and much is unresolved.

At the same time, his prose is rich, poetic and evocative. There is sheer beauty in the three pages that simply describe the movement as the “real” Andy helps an aerialist spin about the big top on a rope.

Nobody can say Jordan can’t write.

CARNIVALESQUE, by Neil Jordan (Bloomsbury Circus, $26.99)

This article was first published in the August 26, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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