Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 2/7/2012
Readers of nonfiction are softies for a good story. As for genre, this crowd might prefer historical fiction: a gratifying narrative in the context of bonafide history and lore.
Frank Delaney, a bestselling author, former BBC broadcaster and Ulysses expert, has built an acclaimed writing career referencing Irish legends, myths and stories amid the conflict with Northern Ireland.
In honor of the birthday of James Joyce this week, Book Kvetch reviews Delaney’s final novel in a trilogy, The Last Storyteller, set around the violent events of 1956 Ireland and the life of apprentice storyteller Ben MacCarthy.
He comes back to my mind when I smell wood smoke.
The first line of the novel introduces John Jacob Farrell O’Neill, the last of Ireland’s fireside storytellers of the ancient tradition. A traveling collector of lore for the Irish Folklore Commission, MacCarthy is on a lonely quest when he makes his first visit to O’Neill’s restored farmhouse.
O’Neill welcomes MacCarthy and prepares for his guest a meal of lamb stew with onions, carrots and potatoes over a cherry wood fire.
With a silver watch chain in his vest pocket and a voice full of “ornament and color,” he tells MacCarthy the legendary love story of Malachi MacCool and Emer. The telling lasts well into the morning and mirrors MacCarthy’s own history of loss, which he later recounts to a stranger in a pub.
In love when I was eighteen with a beautiful actress named Venetia Kelly whom I married on a ship in Galway Bay, when she wore flowers in her hair, a day of bliss. Stolen from me by her ruthless, murderous family.
MacCarthy tells the stranger he has searched high and low, found Venetia on a Florida beach and discovered she has born him twins.
And MacCarthy begins to wonder if O’Neill is magically spinning the story of his life.
The stranger he meets in the pub turns out to be a gun runner for the IRA. MacCarthy is soon covering the violence that erupts along the border on behalf of the Irish Folklore Commission.
Without revealing spoilers, MacCarthy does find happiness. He learns to “…ask a question and get a straight answer—almost an impossible feat in Ireland.” On his quest, he has discovered a way to transform a painful past into a healing and redemptive myth.
By the end of the novel, MacCarthy cobbles together a family lore that he could proudly recant to his children:
Long ago, if long ago means that many, many rivers have flowed into the sea, and if long ago means that many, many stones have rolled down mountains, there lived a chieftain’s son.
The Last Storyteller by Frank Delaney is a worthwhile read with an enthralling story of 1956 Ireland that parallels the narrative of an apprentice storyteller’s quest.
Category: Historical Fiction