Justin's Reviews > The Last Storyteller: A Novel of Ireland

The Last Storyteller by Frank Delaney
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Mar 27, 12

bookshelves: fiction, ireland
Read from February 15 to March 26, 2012

I was offered a free copy of this book to review, being the outspoken fan of Delaney’s that I am, and would like to offer my thanks for that opportunity. That being said, this book made me nervous. I normally tear through Delaney’s books, but this one was slow going for me. I was actually convinced about halfway through that I wouldn’t like it, and then dramatically changed course when I got to the superb last third of the book. As others have mentioned, this is the third book in a trilogy, and while I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this as a standalone novel, it is a wonderful conclusion to the story of Ben MacCarthy and Venetia Kelly.

I must admit that I still haven’t ready Venetia Kelly’s Travelling Show, despite enthusiastically seeking out Delaney’s other works. This is what allowed me to view (and love) the previous book, The Matchmaker of Kenmare, as a standalone novel. Accordingly, I was a little more prepared for the continuity this time around; as with the previous books, this book is told from Ben MacCarthy’s point of view as a thorough, winding memoir. The story is written as a chronicle of his life, left for his twin children.

After finding Venetia married to another man in Florida, Ben MacCarthy returns home to Ireland and attempts to puzzle out what he should do with his life. He inherits the mantle of his venerable folklore-collecting mentor, and begins interview the famous storyteller John Jacob O’Neill. The stories he hears in O’Neill’s house seem eerily prophetic, as they parallel events in Ben’s life. Since returning to Ireland, he has managed to fall in with an IRA gun-runner, which puts him squarely in the sights of both his dubious new friends’ colleagues and some unfriendly police detectives. When Venetia shows up in Ireland again, touring with her abusive new husband’s illusion show, Ben is compelled to act in order try and salvage the happily ever after that he has ached for since Venetia’s disappearance. This compulsion, combined with Ben’s tendency towards dark moodiness and reckless decisions, leads to an act that threatens to drown Ben in remorse and self-hatred. The only thing that can bring peace to his life is its one true constant: the stories he seeks out, dutifully records, and has all along been preparing himself to transform and tell to others.

The first few parts of this book proceed in a meandering, piecemeal fashion that is a hallmark of Delaney’s warm style of prose. This time around, though, things seemed a lot more disconnected. As usual, we are treated to a cast of layered, interesting characters, which rise out of the mythic tapestry of Ireland’s countryside. The various situations that Ben finds himself tossed into (since, for all of his charm, Ben MacCarthy has always been a somewhat hapless protagonist) are a treat to read, but they never quite intersect in a meaningful way, as far as plot goes. At least, not at first. The story really picks up with the return of Venetia, and Ben’s daring plot to reunite with her. Once that gets going, though, the scenes before seem even less important.

It’s not until near the very end of the book that the big payoff comes, where Delaney connects Ben’s adventures with the rebels, his attempt to reclaim Venetia, and the journey to redemption he must take. True to form, the best part of the book is the suite of folk tales that are interspersed in the narrative, told with the lyrical bombast of an ancient seanchaí. Beyond their intrinsic loveliness, they serve as the glue that binds the story’s action to its theme, and lend a bit of more concrete mysticism as Ben’s story draws to a close. The epilogue, a matter-of-fact postscript written by Ben’s children, rounds out an ending that is enormously satisfying, regardless of whether the reader is familiar with the previous two books (and doubly satisfying if they are).

I suppose it takes a more observant reader than I am to see these things coming together before the last sections of the book. I was flailing for a while, there. Things came together in a subtly beautiful way at the end, but to me, the first half felt a bit disjointed. Once Venetia enters the picture again, there are a lot of callbacks to the first book in the trilogy. Between my unfamiliarity with that book and the slow burn Delaney uses to tie everything together, I didn’t really feel invested in the story until I neared the end. For that reason, I’d be wary of reading this book without first reading the previous two. However, if you are a reader with a taste for wistfulness and clever writing, this book is definitely worth your time. The characters alone are worth the price of admission, and taken as a whole it tells a beautiful story. It goes without saying that this is a must-read for those that have read Venetia Kelly’s Traveling Show and The Matchmaker of Kenmare; I can’t think of a better way to end Ben’s story.
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