Bacchanal by Veronica Henry

4.8Overall Score

Bacchanal

Do you remember that opening scene in the movie Us where little Adelaide gets lost at the Beach Boardwalk? She wanders around this dark carnival and her life ends up forever changed because of ...

  • Blackness Present
    5.0
  • Themes
    5.0
  • Characters
    4.5
Bacchanal
Title: Bacchanal
Illustrator: Christina Chung
Published: 06/01/2021
Page Count: 352
ISBN13: 978-1542027816
Evil lives in a traveling carnival roaming the Depression-era South. But the carnival’s newest act, a peculiar young woman with latent magical powers, may hold the key to defeating it. Her time has come. Abandoned by her family, alone on the wrong side of the color line with little to call her own, Eliza Meeks is coming to terms with what she does have. It’s a gift for communicating with animals. To some, she’s a magical tender. To others,…

Do you remember that opening scene in the movie Us where little Adelaide gets lost at the Beach Boardwalk? She wanders around this dark carnival and her life ends up forever changed because of it. This book reminds me of that pivotal scene expanded into a novel. It’s gorgeous while somehow never losing sight of the need to unsettle. It captures a sense of wonder and reminds you that too much curiosity can lead to danger. And most importantly, it’s Black and never lets you forget it.

Why is that important? Because I think the way Blackness (in this case the Deep US South variety) experiences horror is unique because of the ways history has oppressed us. How many people walked away from the first episode of Lovecraft Country noting the real horror was the white cops? There is a sense of that in this book with a carnival run by a former KKK member, a constant need to be aware of how white towns will react to so many Black folks in a carnival, the ways the main characters have to consider their race before their uncanny abilities. But despite that, this is not a trauma book. It does not rely solely on our pain to tell a story.

To the contrary, it relies on the way we persevere in the face of it. The ways we find love, happiness, and family in the midst of hatred. The Black folks in this story; from the two Dahomey warriors to the Senegalese wrestler to the bold main character desperate to be free each refuse to let oppression define their existence. They refuse to be meek in the face of it. I think that struck me the most about the carnival folks in this novel. Many ended up in their stations because they refused to let the world tell them they couldn’t fight back and hold their heads high. Even the ones I didn’t necessarily root for were still respectable in how they refused to bend to an unjust world.

Historical fantasy isn’t normally my thing, but Veronica was able to convince me quickly to take the journey with her characters and I’m happy I did. On a purely personal note, this is the first time I have EVER seen a book mention my hometown of Lake Charles, Louisiana and there were actually multiple things happening within it. I saw the name and expected a quick pass through, but was happy to see how much of a role it played in the plot. Yes, this is a completely bias point but Bacchanal won my heart after seeing a place so dear to me captured well.

The story is told with conviction and a sense of respect for every character in its pages. It would be too easy to lean into cheap comedy and harsh judgments with the setting of a carnival (looking at you AHS Freakshow), but these pages avoid that. Dignity is afforded everyone. Eliza Meeks and her journey is one of endurance, love and the need to do the right thing even when running away is easier.

As something of a somber bonus, there’s a historical character in here that was played by Cicely Tyson in quite iconic fashion. Reading it and seeing this person pop up reminded me of our gone elder in the best way. And Veronica writes this character with as much fierce charm as Cicely portrayed them on the screen.

If you want endearing characters, a charming setting and characters that refuse to bend to the world’s injustices then Bacchanal is the book for you.

Comic books, SFF and good cooking are the essential elements of Brent Lambert. A full-fledged military brat, he is consistently struck by wanderlust and has a keen sense of things never really being permanent. A writer with an insurmountable TBR list, he strives to make Black gay characters exist in all worlds and all times.

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