In Neil Jordan’s Carnivalesque, a boy named Andy visits a carnival, and walks into a hall of mirrors. He stops in front of a mirror a little too long; then, he enters the mirror, and his reflection steps out. By the time he is pulled out from the mirror, the reflection has taken Andy’s place in his family. Andy himself, now called Dany, after being through the mirror and back, has to live with the carnival members, who all have a touch of the supernatural about them.
This is not a very original premise. It draws upon, among other things, the legends of changelings—the babies which fairies leave in place of the human babies they steal; on a tradition of mirror magic going back at least to Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking-Glass and on centuries-old stories and urban legends of nomads being not quite human.
Stories don’t have to be original to be good, of course, just well told. Unfortunately, Carnivalesque is not well told. It moves slowly and self-indulgently, and every time I noticed a particular folk tale or trope it used, I also remembered all the other stories that had used it better.
Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and Terry Pratchett’s Witches Abroad both took the concept of being trapped behind a mirror and used it to create a sense of eeriness. Gaiman’s Neverwhere also dealt with the experience of a “normal” person joining a supernatural tribe of misfits far better than Carnivalesque does; and more books and movies than I can list have better told tales about changelings and doppelgangers. There is very little in Carnivalesque that matches up to the many urban fantasy books that have come before it.
In large part, this is because of the way Carnivalesque is written—with pages and pages of narrative exposition, and very little dialogue. Jordan keeps telling us about how the carnival members literally feed on human emotion; how they can’t breed; and about the machinations behind the mirror that entrapped Andy. But since we discover all this from an omniscient narrator, and not from the voices of the carnies, it’s hard for us to care. Just a little more dialogue might have made it easier for the readers to form an emotional connection with the book and its characters.
Perhaps Jordan wanted to write not a novel, but a poem in novel form, aiming to use words to create an atmosphere rather than to tell a story. To an extent, he is slightly successful when it comes to bringing in elements of his native Ireland and its myths. Bog monsters, Celtic fairies and mildew fill the pages; and so it’s possible that Carnivalesque will resonate more with Irish readers. But for those with no connection to that culture, the absence of characterization means that the Irish atmosphere is merely a wall of words that slows down the plot.
After giving the book as much benefit of doubt as possible, and trying to appreciate it for the language, the only atmosphere I found was one of tedium. Towards the end of the book, with the big bad villain revealed, with the secrets of carnie life cycle laid out, and with even a gory murder described, what I kept feeling was not horror or fascination, but a fervent desire to be done with the book.