Usually, after having read three books from any one author (in this case, all the books he’s published) I feel I can safely say that I’m starting to get an idea of what he or she is all about. With Robert Jackson Bennett, this is far from being the case. His first two offerings, Mr. Shivers and The Company Man, were vastly different books; one a sublime horror tale set in America of the Great Depression, the other a twisted noir investigation. With his third work, Bennett takes us somewhere else again, setting-wise of course, but more notably, thematically. At times dazzling, eerie, touching, but always captivating, The Troupe is Bennett continuing to prove his mettle as a writer of fine fiction, and redefining the notion of ‘versatile writer’ as we know it.
Vaudeville: mad, mercenary, dreamy, and absurd, a world of clashing cultures and ferocious showmanship and wickedly delightful deceptions.
But sixteen-year-old pianist George Carole has joined vaudeville for one reason only: to find the man he suspects to be his father, the great Heironomo Silenus. Yet as he chases down his father's troupe, he begins to understand that their performances are strange even for vaudeville: for wherever they happen to tour, the very nature of the world seems to change.
Because there is a secret within Silenus's show so ancient and dangerous that it has won him many powerful enemies. And it's not until after he joins them that George realizes the troupe is not simply touring: they are running for their lives.
And soon...he is as well.
In The Troupe, Bennett drops us into the world of an unbelievably talented young pianist, George. It is by his side that we discover the curious Silenus Troupe, Vaudeville players with a bit of a secret. With mysteries and magic abounding, The Troupe tells a wonderful tale, one which glitters and shines, but also intrigues. Undoubtedly, it draws its strength in part from variety of storytelling it encompasses, being at once historical fiction, drama and magical adventure. Because of this, rarely (if ever) is it plodding, or uninteresting. Rather, Bennett keeps the reader hooked throughout by appealing in so many different ways to our desires and expectations - explications he often simply surpasses.
The key to the success of his narrative, however, are it’s characters. They’re the ones who tie the manifold plot elements together, and none more so than George. I’d previously noted Bennett’s power to create rousing main characters - Connelly and Hayes, from his previous novels, were solid leads - but George wins all. Bennett conveys equally well the boisterous enthusiasm and naivety of his youth, as well as his pains. These are only better emphasized during his quest for his father, and the hardships it brings him.
All around, Bennett’s characterization is excellent, and though as said George is clearly the best developed, there’s still something to be said of the strength of the secondary characters. After all, The Troupe wouldn’t be a very apt title if the ranks of the eponymous group of entertainers were not filled with characters who shine in their own ways. For the most part, their presence within the plot is to distracting intrigues from the main storyline, but eventually Bennett masterfully folds these threads back into the core story of the novel.
In terms of atmosphere, The Troupe’s is somewhat surreal, dreamlike. Bennett makes us feel like we are getting a privileged look at lives of these vaudeville players, and the heavy burden of their unlikely mission. Coupled with the always appealing setting of the turn-of-the-century Midwest, this has the effect of thoroughly drawing us into the novel, if only to discover more of intricacies and curiosities. Much like the audience at one of the Silenus Troupe’s shows, we feel entranced and entertained, but in a manner so subtle it leaves us wondering how Bennett achieved it.
Because above all else, The Troupe is charming. Its characters, plot and imagination will provide the initial attraction, but it is Bennett’s delightful prose, and first-rate characterization which will keep you coming back. This third novel may be different from Bennett’s two others, but it isn’t without his now almost characteristic literary flair, and attention to detail. Having this timed tamed the plot-issues which hampered The Company Man, The Troupe has none of these issues, and leaves me once more in full, uncontested awe of Bennett’s skill. Bring on the fourth book!
Robert Jackson Bennett's Website: http://shufflingandmuttering.blogspot.com/
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