Ninety-nine year-old Dan Sean O’Callaghan, the most famous resident of a fictionalized County Wicklow as presented in the novel The Carnival at Bray, still makes yearly pilgrimages to Catholic holy places. Maggie Lynch, the book’s sixteen-year-old protagonist, makes a different sort of pilgrimage, following her favorite band across Europe to find her own version of enlightenment. And Jessie Ann Foley, the author of Elephant Rock Books’ upcoming novel, makes the pilgrimage daily to her writing desk.
Foley, who holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia College Chicago, wrote The Carnival at Bray (coming October 2014) after she graduated from the program and returned to her full-time job as a high school teacher.
“I came home every day after school, and I wrote,” she said. “I knew I had to. I could complain about my job, or I could pursue my passion.”
When I met with her at Portage Grounds to discuss the release of her debut novel, Foley was quick to assure me that the day-job had gotten better. But that didn’t stop her from continuing her habit of writing once the workday was done. After a year at her computer, she submitted her novel to Elephant Rock’s inaugural young adult fiction contest, where it went on to win the 2014 Helen Sheehan Book Prize.
The Carnival at Bray is a coming-of-age story that stands out from the crowd of first-person dystopian adventures currently filling the YA shelves. When teenage Maggie’s mother gets married and moves the family from Chicago to a small town on the Irish coast, Maggie turns to music as solace, listening to bands recommended by her Uncle Kevin, himself an aspiring musician back in the States. These bands include The Smashing Pumpkins, Liz Phair, and, of course, Nirvana.
Upon finishing The Carnival at Bray and talking to Foley, I was led down the rabbit hole of Wikipedia in search of information about iconic Nirvana frontman, Kurt Cobain, who features heavily in the novel. A nineties kid myself, I’ve long been intrigued by Cobain’s “live fast, die young” legend: the drama surrounding his suicide, his published private notebooks, his grunge rock legacy. Foley warned me that she took some liberties in tracking his final days, (this is not really a spoiler alert: Cobain died in April, 1994, the novel begins in September, 1993), but her creativity has only served to heighten Maggie’s story. The artistic license she’s taken in tweaking the history makes sense—the actual person that was Kurt Cobain is, for these purposes, irrelevant. What matters is how Maggie perceives him, and how Foley has chosen to tell this story about a teenage girl, her idols, and the fact that they might one day disappoint her.
Continuing this theme is the aforementioned Uncle Kevin, Maggie’s surrogate father figure. At a meandering twenty-six, Kevin is far from a good role model, often placing his young niece in inappropriate and dangerous situations—but Maggie adores him. Though she is fully capable of criticizing her mother, Laura, whose choices also tend to be suspect, Maggie is blind to the faults of Uncle Kevin. Since the book is written in close third person point-of-view, following our protagonist’s thoughts entirely, the reader comes to idolize him too, even when, with Maggie, we finally understand his history.
When I spoke with Foley, she said she thought almost everyone has someone like that in our lives: a role model whose behavior we rationalize because of childhood devotion. Uncle Kevin can’t help what or who he is; like many of Foley’s characters, he does the best he can. Maggie’s journey involves encounters with some objectively good characters, but more often a nuanced mix of people whose actions fall in shades of gray. Take Kurt Cobain, the drug-addicted genius, or Maggie’s stepfather Colm, who struggles to parent his new wife’s children. Like Foley, Maggie’s view of those around her is generally non-judgmental. She sees the good and bad in everyone— until she turns the camera on herself. Maggie is often insecure, and in this sense feels like a very real teenage girl. She overanalyzes, beats herself up over issues that she should not blame herself for, and spends a lot of thought on her appearance.
But The Carnival at Bray was not initially intended as a young adult novel. Inspired by Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once Upon a River, Foley set out to tell the story of a young adult character, but not necessarily to force herself toward genre. After finishing a draft and getting notes from her editor, she realized that Maggie’s coming-of-age story could fit into the YA niche. She made a conscious choice not to follow the usual ploys of the genre, citing The Fault in Our Stars (check out my thoughts on that here!) as a YA book that eschews the usual tropes.
I, for one, am glad this is a so-called “YA” novel. In the ongoing debate of what constitutes YA and who should be reading books classified as such, I find myself firmly in the camp that couldn’t care less. A book is a book, and a reader is a reader. To paraphrase the film Little Miss Sunshine: “read what you love and f*** the rest.” I found much of Maggie’s development and experiences relevant to my own teenage life, and I would have liked to have had her as a guide when I was younger. One particularly moving passage of The Carnival at Bray involves Maggie’s first sexual experiences. In it, Foley shines a light on the particular pressures faced by young women, our cultural expectations, and the emotions that we’re forced to deal with afterward. Apparently some early readers saw the scene as graphic, but I think it is an important scene for Foley to have written. Bad and difficult things do happen to young people, but in the end, like Maggie, we learn that “that’s what living people do. They shatter and rebuild, shatter and rebuild, shatter and rebuild until they are old and worn and stooped from the work of it.”
Foley’s prose is lovely, definitely a step up from your average YA fare. But even more important is her deftness with her characters and story, and the steady hand she has in guiding Maggie through her journey from kid to young adult. I am definitely looking forward to the novel she predicts will be her next: an exposé of the final year of one of Chicago’s all-girls Catholic schools.