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Book Review: The Last Storyteller: A Novel of Ireland by Frank Delaney

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At a fairly late point in The Last Storyteller, the protagonist Ben McCarthy says that, in times of acute pain and fear, people need “something other than their norms.” By this, he was referring to the power of stories to heal and unite people: “At one stride we had returned to a kind of spiritual paganism, an intense humanism almost, a reaching for primitive beliefs in the power of the human spirit to learn how to heal itself.” (337) This is, at heart, what The Last Storyteller is about: the power of stories to unite and heal.

The novel is the last in a trilogy that follows The Matchmaker of Kenmare and Venetia kelly’s Traveling Show, and although there are hints of a prior story in The Last Storyteller — Ben’s father’s relationship with Venetia, and Venetia’s abduction are all key to the plot of The Last Storyteller — enough backstory is revealed for this novel to work as a standalone read. This is partly due to the way in which The Last Storyteller incorporates the rich backdrop of Ireland in the 1950s at the official start of “the troubles.” This helps put the very personal events of Ben’s life into an historical context.

Ben himself is a perfect character, as seanchaí John Jacob O’Neill puts it, “a weak character who grows strong, because the best legends are those where we learn how to overcome what besets us.” His character arc is revealed in narrative epistle as confession, self-revelation growing through the story of his life which he is telling and mythologising. Though he has his own backstory that is slowly drawn into the thread of his new story, Ben is instantly credible through self-deprecation and honesty as he reveals what he’s lost and the pain, love and longing that motivates him. The descriptions he provides are detailed and poetic, such as this depiction of his dying mentor James Clare:

“The skin on his face had become rice paper. Thin lines I had never seen before ran down his cheekbones, small, ice-blue veins. His hair, dense as scrub, stood up, as uncombed as ever. Against the pallor of the skin, the insides of his nostrils seemed almost to glow red. And I saw, not for the first time, his deerline eyelashes.” (100)

The story is so quiet and full of sensation and observation that it’s almost possible to forget how broad the landscape is, that it covers famine and poverty, IRA rebellion and government brutality, and divides the island through violence and anger. Ben too has reasons to be wretched through his desperate love story; however, the story is delivered after the fact, with a detached distant narrative, and like William Butler Yeat’s Chinaman in “Lapis Lazuli,” Ben’s delivery remains Buddistically detached and warm. Throughout the story’s progression, internal and external perception work seamlessly, focusing on the characters emotion through the details of each scene rather than on the external action:

“The piper ceased. Voices rose and fell in the muttered and stuttered litanies of obsequy. Some of the prayers ran away with the breeze. Dipping a round-knobbed silver pestle into a small silver bucket, the priest scattered holy water on the coffin. Now the loss began to bite.” (105

Each line that makes up The Last Storyteller is tight, poetic, and so delicately dense that I suspect I could go through the short chapters with the same careful attention that Delaney is showing James Joyce in his Re:Joyce unpacking of Ulysses, and continually find new references and rhythms. Beyond the immediacy of Ben and Venetia’s story, the IRA and Jimmy Bermingham’s story, or the story of obsession around Elma and Dan Barry, and there are other tales too. There are the legends and stories that underpin every modern story and all of our lives. There is Malachi and Finn MacCool, King Billy, Diarmuid, the proud king who lived on an island off the coast of Munster, and many more tales that move smoothly around the globe and backwards and forwards in time.

The Last Storyteller is a novel about the power of stories and about how they convey meaning and immortality to our lives. At one point Ben McCarthy is told that to tell a good story you need to use language with accuracy and elegance. Certainly this is what Frank Delaney does in The Last Storyteller. Delaney’s linguistic toolbox is as well honed and polished as Ben’s becomes and this, his own story, is one that will resonate with the reader well beyond the pages of the book.

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About Magdalena Ball

Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Sublime Planet, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.
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