Title: The Last Storyteller
Author: Frank Delaney
Genre: Historical fiction
Publisher: Random House
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Source: Review copy from the publisher
First line: He comes back to my mind when I smell wood smoke.
The Last Storyteller is the final book in Delaney’s Venetia Kelly trilogy, and it is by far the strongest entry in the series. After the events of the second book, events that introduced him to Kate Begley, The Matchmaker of Kenmare, and took him through the horrors of World War II, Ben McCarthy has gone back to his profession as a collector of Irish folklore. His mentor, James Clare, is dying – but before he passes, he leaves Ben a most valuable inheritance: he introduces him to John Jacob O’Neill. O’Neill is the last of a vanishing breed, a seanchai, or traveling storyteller. As Ben enters this final – and most important – phase of his vocational training, he is also pulled into current events: the early years of the IRA and the resulting violence. Ben tries to navigate the tricky waters of national loyalty, and while doing so, is forced to face his own past and his undying love for Venetia.
While reading this series, I’ve come to love Ben McCarthy. He’s a complex character who has grown on me through the pages. He starts out as a naive 18-year-old, and the trilogy takes him through his final years, unraveling his story, thread by thread. The first two books in the series took some pages before I was completely hooked. Not so with The Last Storyteller – I was engrossed from the very beginning, fighting an internal battle between the desire to savor the beautiful words and the even stronger desire to find out if Ben was ever reunited with his Venetia.
His determination to bring Venetia back to him leads Ben to an act of violence he could never have foreseen. It is this darkest point that causes Ben to slowly lay down the mantle of story collector, and take up his rightful calling as a story teller. The pages describing his time with John Jacob O’Neill, learning the art of the seanchai, were extremely powerful, and often the sheer beauty of the words had my eyes filling with tears. Delaney believes strongly in the power of story to impact people, to help people see who they are, to heal them, to comfort them, to spur them to action. The best way to describe this trilogy, I think, and particularly this final book, is as Delaney’s love letter to Ireland and her stories.
I was seeing an archetype. Not a local character, such as a ballad singer or a blacksmith; this was a visitor from the world stage, a vital cog in Man’s spiritual machinery. In all the faiths, in all the hopes, in all the belief systems of the world, one figure and one only held the truth for me, and therefore the healing: the storyteller, the one who tells us who we are, and who has done so since God was an infant.
John Jacob was that archetype that night, and as though to prove it to my eyes, he shape-shifted, as if he’d been in an old legend. He changed from the man who had been with me in the car, with the navy turtleneck sweater, the ruddy cheeks, the impeccable hands, the power thrumming away beneath the surface.
Now I saw a man in a long black coat, a black hat, and powerful shiny boots; a man with a face of stark, white parchment whose deep-set eyes glowed like coals and whose hands punched each dramatic point; a man who turned his head slowly, like a searchlight, seeking out every face listening to him and compelling it not merely to hear but to understand.
I saw a younger man, still in black but with a hint of the clerical in his shirt and collar, a priest or a schoolteacher, and I realized that I was seeing a fugitive, a man to be shot on sight because he possessed learning. Shakespeare knew it: “He thinks too much: such mean are dangerous.” This man was bringing to these people out under the trees and the hedges the thrill of Ovid, the power and yearning of Dante, the beauty of Virgil and Horace, and would, if caught by the red-coated soldiers, pay for it with his life.
And I saw, too, a tall man in a robe with a staff, entering the castle hall and being made welcome, and sitting on great cushions, and eating and drinking, and then, invited to stand beside the king and queen, telling a tale, in ravishing language and flowing verse and eternal feeling, a tale by which a kingdom could be governed, on which a nation could be founded.