The Matchmaker of Kenmare

From the very first few pages, I knew that this would be a very powerful novel to me. I understood Ben MacCarthy, the collector of folktales, as if I’d met him in person. Lines such as these created a vision of him which are to me both real and piercing: “At that time, July 1943, I viewed myself as a man alone and grieving, with those night soldiers, doubt and fear, hammering always at my door.”  (Have you had those night soldiers pounding upon your door? If not, how lucky you are.)
The setting takes place in the 1940’s, mostly in Ireland, but it is not the picturesque Irish countryside you see on the cover of the published book. It is a neutral Ireland, to be sure, but Ben MacCarthy, and Kate Begley, the matchmaker of Kenmare, are anything but neutral. They become entrenched in the war as deeply as if they were soldiers themselves because Ben is searching for his wife, Venetia, while Kate is searching for her husband of seven days, intelligence operative Charles Miller.

By telling the tale of Kate Begley and me, with its wide canvas, its wild swings of emotion, its heroes and villains, and its extraordinary conclusion, I’m opening old wounds to examine why I took the actions that I did, some of them terrible. Once more I’m hurting myself, and even though I long since traveled past all that, even though the life I’ve lived rewarded me acceptably,  I’m still, as I write these words, having to calculate the control that I’ll need merely to tell you.

We discover that Ben is narrating his story to his children, and therefore to us, and it is a tale with dangers and decisions which remind me of William Styron’s novel Sophie’s Choice. Of course, those who lived through World War II must have nightmares untold, not only of the bombings they heard but of the sufferings they endured.

One of the things I loved about this book was the importance Delaney placed on literature. Ben’s ‘spiritual parents’ gave him his first major reading list, with Miss Fey asking, “Did you know that books can save your life?”

So I took on every writer whom they recommended, from Chaucer to Dickens and Hardy; from Franklin to Hawthorne and Thoreau, from Balzac to de Maupassant and Zola.

And then I went on to read ever more widely, finding all the while many new friends on the page. I read Plato and tried to understand what understanding is; I read Socrates and learned how to argue with myself; I read Ovid and wished that I had been the one to collect those legends.

More important, I grew a kind of new skin–meaning, I gave myself a private identity. A librarian in a town where I’d been staying for two weeks introduced me to the work of a woman from Belfast, Helen Waddell, who had translated Chinese poems, some of which were written twelve centuries before the birth of Christ…the book became my constant companion, The Wandering Scholars.

Which, in fact, is an apt description for Ben himself.

Sometimes–if not always–we have to depend on others to tell us the truth of ourselves. Bobby Bilburn, with his wobbling stomach and a jowl big as a briefcase, and his elegant, orotund speech, captured for me the essence of why I’d liked the road around Ireland. It had nothing to do with the outer world; it had to do with the landscapes within me, and my own mountains and rivers and lakes. No wonder I’ve so loved my Wandering Scholars. They understood the inner terrain that we all have–and the need to travel it.

It is a profoundly meaningful journey that Delaney helps us to travel. One I’m in awe of him creating.

Frank Delaney’s novel, The Matchmaker of Kenmare, was released by Random House on February 8. You can learn more about Frank Delaney and his books at http://www.frankdelaney.com/