I have become quick to write off young adult fiction novels in the last few years, which made me pleasantly surprised at how lost I got in the adventure that is The Carnival at Bray by Jessie Ann Foley. Foley’s debut novel is already a Helen Sheehan Prize winner, which a reader will quickly understand early on. The story gave me an experience I never would have gotten, and in the midst of it all, I became emotionally connected to main character Maggie.
After being ripped from her life in Chicago to Ireland by her hopeless romantic mother, she goes through a string of rough patches and tragic losses. I admired Maggie’s strength in how she practiced forgiveness and adapted to her new circumstances despite her resentment. I was also a bit envious of her sense of adventure when she meets the guy of her dreams and runs away to Rome.
As picture perfect as that may sound, Foley definitely brings real life into the story with death and the complications of becoming a teen, dealing with sexuality, and accepting one’s self. The unique experience comes into play when the setting is back in the early 90s when grunge rock was the “it thing,” and Nirvana was on everyone’s playlist. Music is a large theme in this book as a heavy influence on many characters and the language. Many of the descriptions and dialogue read smooth and beautiful as poetry. It is no wonder Kurt Cobain becomes a central figure.
The concert scenes brought me back to my rock show days in a country I have only daydreamed of visiting. There is something about the fans of rock shows, the passion and adoration they have for the artists pouring out their vulnerabilities on stage. Sometimes it can be truly moving, and Foley successfully captures those moments on the page. She was able to move me with this story in many other ways as well which is ultimately what got me to love it.
Maggie becomes so fed up at one point with the conflicts of growing up she asks herself,
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? And how many more promises would she have to break before she came out on the other side?
Her answer in the moment was to force herself through something she truly did not want to do, and it made me cringe to think back to how out of control being a teenager can make one feel. Maggie sums up the frustration of growing up when she simply states, “Sometimes, being 16 felt like one giant looped film of fuckups big and small.” As she comes to terms with a tremendous loss, she battles with what it means to truly live or to stay perfectly in the lines.
Audiences can enjoy the adventure that is The Carnival at Bray this upcoming fall in October. Keep an eye out for my follow-up Q&A with the author coming later today!