Venetia Kelly's Traveling Show (A Novel of Ireland, #1)

By Frank Delaney

808 ratings - 3.63* vote

January 1932: While Ireland roils in the run-up to the most important national election in the Republic’s short history, Ben MacCarthy and his father watch a vagabond variety revue making a stop in the Irish countryside. After a two-hour kaleidoscope of low comedy, Shakespearean recitations, juggling, tumbling, and other entertainments, Ben’s father, mesmerized by Venetia January 1932: While Ireland roils in the run-up to the most important national election in the Republic’s short

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Book details

Hardcover, 448 pages
February 23rd 2010 by Random House

(first published January 1st 2010)

1400067839 (ISBN13: 9781400067831)
Edition Language

Community Reviews

Donna Davis

Frank Delaney was well known in the UK before those of us in the United States had heard of him; NPR has called him “the most eloquent man in the world”, and after I had read Ireland, an epic novel that has to do with a storyteller and so much more, I was sold. I wasn’t blogging or reviewing back then, and after I had turned the last page, I told my family that I wanted to read everything else Delaney had written. Then I received this novel as a Christmas present, and was underwhelmed. I set it aside and figured I would give it away, but later I realized that it was the first in a trilogy for which I had also received the other two books. In February of this year, I took a deep breath and plunged in for another try.

This novel is much briefer than Ireland, and I’m a reader that often finishes a good book of this length in a weekend. The problem is that this one isn’t that good. In fact, I found myself wondering whether the author had perhaps been about to produce another similarly epic work and instead decided to chisel three books out of it. Whereas Ireland magically blends Irish history, culture, and political struggle with the fictional memoir of a young boy that has met and been captivated by a wandering story teller, creating a story one can sink into and forget the rest of the world even exists, this story, which is also a family’s fictional memoir, feels like a hamster on its wheel, going through the same stuff over..and over…and…

The setting is rural Ireland in 1932; the protagonist is Ben MacCarthy, and he spins the first person narrative that makes up the story. His family is one of humble farmers, and like so many families, they barely eke out a living. The farm has been in Ben’s mother’s family for generations. His father is frustrated, not meant to be a farmer it seems, and maybe that is why he is so easily caught up in the snare set for him by the Kelly family. The Kelly patriarch is Thomas “King” Kelly, a wealthy, connected man, and Venetia is his daughter. She travels as the main act in a caravan, and Ben’s father falls in love with her instantly, leaving Ben and his mother without a means of subsistence.

Almost the entire book is the account of Ben, whose mother sends him to bring his father home, though he is just an adolescent himself, as he goes after his father, is rejected, and then is sent back after him again. It’s irritating. Part of the story has to do with Venetia’s ventriloquism and her dummy, Blarney. Clearly Blarney is intended to draw and amuse the reader, but I found another of my eye-rolling frenzies coming on. Right, I want to say. Cute. Now can we cut to the chase?

Delaney at his best doesn’t cut to the chase; that’s the whole point of weaving a story, to make the reader want to hear more detail, not less. In Ireland, he succeeded, and I grieved for a week when the story was over, because I wanted it back. With this story it was more the opposite; I hit the 78% mark after months of reading it in small snippets, basically only resorting to it when my electronic reader had to be charged. I kept it conveniently by my bedside so it would entice me, but just looking at the cover became a chore, and I finally resolved to skip to the end, then figure out how much of it could be skimmed to understand the outcome and give the other two books a try. Had my loving relatives not put full cover price into not only this title but the two that come after it—and oh I do hope they’re better!—I wouldn’t have bothered.

One side character that stands out and prevents this from being a 2 or 2.5 star novel is Billy Maloney, the handyman that swears profusely. Because his mother won’t hear profanity, young Ben repeats Billy’s messages verbatim, and rather than leave out the curses, he substitutes the word “flockin’” in their place. We will forget all about Billy as we get caught up—or not—in the MacCarthy family’s drama and the Kellys’ schemes, and then all of a sudden a whole stream of ‘flocks’ will appear. There were some other devices Delaney also used, but they didn’t work for me. This one did.

Well, what can I tell you? If you are a dedicated fan of Irish literature and you have deep pockets, go ahead. You’ve seen what I have to say, and if you still want the book, you can buy it.

But if you’re only getting one sumptuous, luxurious novel and you love tales of Ireland, then that’s the book I recommend to you. Read Frank Delaney’s Ireland, and let this one stay in its warehouse.

Kathleen Kelly

Venetia Kelly's Traveling Show is a beautifully written story about Irish families living in a very turbulent time in Ireland's history.The narrator, Ben MacCarthy is telling the story of what happens when his father deserts the family to follow this "traveling show" and the beautiful Venetia and her mother Sarah, who are the main actors. As Ben tells his story he often digresses, but this is a trait of the storytellers of Ireland, to stray off topic. At first the authors style of writing was hard to master but after awhile I got so immersed in the story that the digressions did not matter. At times heartbreakingly sad and often humorous this is a wonderful story about the lives and loves of very real people.The narrator has a way of pulling you into the story and not letting go. Full of colorful characters, good and bad and even a ventriloquist dummy named Blarney. I loved it!!!

I received this "signed" copy from the author for my honest review. I was not compensated monetarily for my opinion.


I was privileged enough to listen to this book on audio, narrated by the author himself. His Irish lilt was a joy to listen to and of course his characters simply came alive. By far the best one for me was Ben's father - the author got the stutter just perfectly and I loved every line he spoke. Which probably makes you wonder why I only gave the book 3 stars. In fact, it should be 3.5 because it was a good book, but it just didn't really go anywhere. There was a lot of build up, and many digressions (which the narrator has already forewarned us about) but the ending was just a bit of a damp squib. It's a pity, but if there is one thing I can recommend is to listen to this book rather than read it, for nothing else but the author's voice alone.


Any book lover knows there are some books that find you at the right time in your life -- a book that couldn't have impacted you more at any other time. But there are also books that are the worst you could read at a particular moment in your life. Books affect readers differently depending on what is going on in the reader's life and what is happening in the book. 'Venetia Kelly's Traveling Show' was one of the worst books I could have read right now. I struggled with this one.

Wandering around Ireland in 1932, we follow young Ben's search for his father. He disappeared with a traveling show --captivated by Venetia Kelly, an actress, despite having a wife and son he loves dearly back home. Ben is an innocent naive farmer's son, that has to change everything he is to fight for what is right, even if that fight takes everything else away from him. Ben and his family are wonderful sweet people. I didn't like seeing another horrible, malicious, manipulative, vindictive family using that against Ben's family. There is never a pleasant phase in this book -- from page one starts the job of unraveling what went wrong. I didn't understand the characters actions. Ben's dad is more thoughtful to his wife (showing his care in tiny ways all the time) than maybe 95% of the world's population could ever be, and yet he is so quick to break her heart. Another character reacts one way to keep a secret, but then they backpedal and do something else that is the equivalent of shouting that secret from the rooftops.

I would have liked to see a map of Ireland with all of the places Ben visits labeled within the front cover, since he is constantly traveling. I'm surprised that Ireland wasn't more of a character itself. It takes a while to introduce the characters before the meat of the story begins. With Ben as the narrator, he says "I'm prone to digressions" and "forgive me if I sometimes come across as jumpy" and "forgive me if I've taken too long to introduce [the characters:]". I don't feel these were Ben's apologies. I feel they are the writer's... and as Delaney is a former judge for the Booker Fiction Prize, I find that surprising. I would have liked to see some of the interesting bits mentioned passively, written about more: On Ben's travels, he "rides in a hearse" but that is all that is said on the subject. Why even mention it at all? Somehow I think I ride in a hearse could have added some much needed comic relief to this novel.

There is a sort of distance to the story (which is only beneficial if you are constantly suspicious of these characters and would rather not get close to the story.) If I had been aware that from page one I would be suspicious of every character, wondering what their motives are to ruin the lives of other people, I wouldn't have chose to read this. I'm dealing with this kind of thing in my own life -- wondering what motives people have to ruin other lives. I read books to escape my own life, not to worry even more. I don't want to worry about characters the same way I worry about people in my own life. I was even suspicious of the characters that became the biggest victims. That isn't how I'd like to read a book. Not to say I only read books with lovely nice characters, but having a plot solely be about suspicious characters is too much. There isn't really a clear, cut and dried ending either. I don't like writing a bad review. I can only imagine the amount of work it takes to write a book. Who am I to say if it isn't good? Again, it is largely my current problems that are affecting my enjoyment of this and not mainly the fault of the book. Books effect everyone differently.

This book reminded me of 'Big Fish' by Daniel Wallace and 'I Capture the Castle' by Dodie Smith (if either book was filled with despicable characters I didn't want to read about, anyway.) Come on now, even a ventriloquist dummy is horrible: "Venetia Kelly, serene as the moon, sat and looked on, and Blarney [(the dummy):] ranted, his words driving spikes into the national spirit" (page 140). This book crushed my spirit as well.


From my blog...[return]Imagine yourself settling in with your favourite beverage and listening to a longtime acquaintance recalling a pivotal tale from his past. Such is the manner Frank Delaney tells the story of Venetia Kelly's Traveling Show. The narrator tells the tale of an 18-year-old boy in the rather turbulent times in Ireland in 1932-33, yet the tale is not told straight from the 18-year-old, but rather from a much older man telling the tale of his youth. In a masterful way, Delaney commands the reader's attention with his delightful manner of recounting a tale, at times true, and at other times whimsical. The cast of characters in this narrative are explained to the reader from the beginning and brought to life by the narrator, Ben MacCarthy. Venetia Kelly's Traveling Show offers something for everyone, an eccentric cast of characters, political unrest and turmoil leading up to a contentious election, digressions, death, betrayal and beautifully narrated scenes aimed to bring this magical period to life. Delaney weaves together an entertainingly long and delightfully ramblingly tale, much like the hills of Ireland, mixing in an eccentric cast with a story so unbelievable it often becomes difficult to distinguish fancy from fantasy, yet all the while keeping the reader's rapt attention from the very beginning until the last sentence is read. High marks all around for Frank Delaney's novel, Venetia Kelly's Traveling Show, guaranteed to capture the hearts and minds of the readers. Book groups looking for an intriguing and captivating novel to read would do well to choose Venetia Kelly's Traveling Show.


This book had some good moments, but not enough of them to keep me reading to the end.

As with many Irish stories, there is sly, witty humour, and morbidly depressing drama in about equal propotions in this story of a young Irish man who's father decides on the spur of the moment to run off and follow the travelling show that comes to town. Without a second thought the man just leaves and goes with the show and the entrancing woman - the Venetia Kelly of the title - who he has completely fallen for.

The boy's mother demands that he go and find his father and bring him home. What follows is the boy's attempts to do that, but the amount of angst and heavy carrying on in the back story just got on my nerves by about the halfway mark. When I realized I was rolling my eyes more frequently than I was laughing - because there are some very funny parts, as there usually are with the Irish, who have a delightful sense of what is truly funny - I decided it just wasn't entertaining enough to stay with it.



You must LISTEN to it. The author reads it and is the best narration I have ever heard. He has a beautiful Irish accent and makes you feel like you are in the room. It is full of Irish lore, wit, superstition, stories and eccentric characters. It's set in the 1930s when Ireland was gaining independence. Politics was the main topic but it's about everyday Irish people. His descriptions of people are often hilarious. One man's eyebrows are compared to a caterpillar that farmers use to tell how severe the winter will be. One woman's heavy legs are attributed to "the pope gave dispensation for her legs to be attached upside-down". Ben, the narrator, admits to digressing while telling the story, and even categorizes his digressions.
This is story-telling at its best.


I love language. The story line in Venetia Kelly's Traveling Show is not too complex and not necessarily satisfying, but the language is exquisite. I had the pleasure of listening to Delaney read the book which added to the enjoyment. The book is basically about power and politics in 1932 in the new Irish state. The real pleasure in Delaney is the Digressions. The rambling patter of Irish speech is a treat to listen to. Do yourself a favor and read it out loud to yourself.


A young man on the cusp of adulthood has lead a relatively good life up until that point. His father is a well-respected farmer and seems happily married to his mother. Everything changes, however, when he attends a traveling show performance with his father one evening. His father refuses to return home, emphatic that he is joining the show. The elder MacCarthy is smitten with the show's lead act, Venetia Kelly, an interest that had begun two years before, unbeknownst to the son. Ben MacCarthy is forced to grow up very quickly after that. Tasked by his mother to go after and bring home his father, Ben must give up his own dreams of college. The year is 1932 and the story takes place in Ireland, a beautiful and yet tense backdrop. Political tensions are high with the upcoming election and subsequent battle for power. What follows is a story full of intrigue, drama, comedy and family loyalty and strength. It is also rich in history with a dash of Irish lore. I laughed. I cried. I held my breath in anticipation of and fear. What sounds like a simple story is far from it. Venetia Kelly's Traveling Show is quite complex, with many layers.

What I found most exquisite in this novel was Frank Delaney's writing. Narrated by an older Ben MacCarthy as he attempts to document the events that took place during the early 1930's. He begins by setting up the characters, introducing them and sharing a little of their background. It was almost too much, but just when I was growing tired and wondering if the book would go on like that forever, Ben's narrative moved into the story and the events that changed his life forever.

I really came to care for the characters. Ben, in his innocence and naivety, was charming and thoughtful. He does what he has to do with the confidence of the young, yet he is still unsure and scared at times. His parents seemed like good people, hardworking and persevering. There were moments I was less than sympathetic with his father, quite a few, actually, but I could see why Ben held him in such high regard. I really felt for Ben's mother. She lost so much in all of this. The Kelly family remains difficult for me to describe. King Kelly, Venetia's grandfather, is a cold man, charming in his own way, but clearly used to using people to reach his own ends. Sarah King, Venetia's mother, and Venetia herself were held at a distance for the first half or so of the book--untouchable almost--but not without reason. The author dazzled the reader with their beauty and skill, both on stage and off. Both were actresses, you see. It is only as time goes on and Ben reveals more that we are given a deeper view of the two women. Venetia, eccentric as she is, never really loses her luster.

The side characters are just as intriguing. From Mrs. Hass, the King's housekeeper, to my favorites, Miss Fay and James Clare, a smart and supportive pair who offer their help to Ben along the way. James Clare was an especially interesting character; his occupation involved traveling around Ireland collecting and telling stories. He knew just the spin to put on a story. The most ordinary of circumstances seemed like an adventure when he was through weaving his own tale.

The political undercurrent that runs through the novel plays a significant part in the novel. Just as the MacCarthy family is facing serious upheaval of their own, so seems to be the government. Violence threatens to erupt from under the surface and Ben unwittingly finds himself at the forefront of it all.

As I read Frank Delaney's novel, I couldn't help but be entranced. The art of storytelling is in high gear in the novel, both as a theme running through the novel and the way the book was written. I would love to hear this novel narrated--I imagine it would be just as wonderful in the right narrator's voice. This book is definitely one I will be keeping around. I can see myself returning to it again and again, each time getting something new out of it.


Venetia Kelly's Traveling Show by Frank Delaney is a coming of age novel set during a tumultuous time in Ireland's history. Set in the early 1930s, Ireland and Britain were in the midst of an economic battle in which farmers refused to keep paying back the loans that enabled them to buy farmland. And Britain consequently began placing tariffs on all Irish goods -- all the while the political system in Ireland was tenuous.

"Of course it was all still being run by politicians. We have an old saying here: 'No matter who you vote for, the government always gets in.'" (Page 15)

The narration is conversational in tone as Ben MacCarthy tells his family history, with tales on the side about the political climate of the time. Although he digresses from the main story of his father's disappearance and reappearance with the Venetia Kelly Traveling Show, MacCarthy warns you ahead of time that he often falls off topic, but that most of his stories have some relevance to the main narration. A quirky technique, but enjoyable given that the digressions are entertaining.

"So, throughout this story you can expect three kinds of sidesteps: Important Digression, which will usually be something to do with factual history; Important Digression, where a clarification needs facts and I will ferry them in from a side road; and -- my favorite -- Unimportant Digression, which can be about anything." (Page 10)

Delaney has created a multitude of characters with their own depth and meaning in the story, and there are references throughout to other classic works. He has created an energized menagerie through which readers will see and experience through Ben's eyes as a young man in search of his father and himself. In many ways Ben is like his father, especially as the narration progresses. Readers will find that he is unwinding his story slowly and deliberately, mirroring how his father contains his emotions and his true passions from his family.

"Beside me, my father reacted so hard that he made the bones of his chair creak. He pulled back his hands, tightened them into fists, and held them in front of him like a man containing himself." (Page 79)

The deliberate way in which the story unfolds enables readers to learn more about the MacCarthy family, the Kelly's, and the climate of Ireland at the time. A nation and families stuck between the old traditions and the modern ways of the world, seeking the best path through to the other side. What propels Ben on this journey and what does he learn? Readers will want to pick up a copy of Venetia Kelly's Traveling Show to find out.