There aren’t too many books like The Troupe. It’s a deliciously macabre tale of old-fashioned American vaudeville. There is a large idiosyncratic cast of performers, and sitting at the novel’s heart is a delightful creation myth. The book reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s ‘American Gods’ with a huge dollop of Stephen King (in tear in the fabric of the universe mode) thrown in. The overall effect compares favourably with both, making Robert Jackson Bennett’s novel a diverting piece of imaginative fiction.
The mystique of vaudeville lends itself perfectly to this type of gothic fiction. There are dingy theatres, crumbling flop-houses and a set of players with some decidedly creepy acts. Puppeteer whose marionettes don’t have strings, anyone? The ‘troupe’ are what make this book. They are a beautifully drawn set of comrades in arms, each with a dark side.
The story follows George, a gifted young vaudeville pianist, who wishes to join a particular troupe. A troupe that proves elusive. A troupe that everybody agrees are wonderful performers, but for which no one can quite recall their finale. A performance that engenders an enormous sense of well being, yet is impossible to recall; how’s that for sinister? George is convinced he was conceived when the ‘Silenus’ troupe passed through his home town sixteen years ago. Harry Silenus is their charismatic leader who hides a host of mysterious talents. George believes Harry is his father. When he finally catches up with Harry, George discovers there are many reasons for his father’s peripatetic life. Harry is searching for something older than time, but more importantly, he is running from something very bad indeed.
Each chapter of ‘The Troupe’ fills the reader with an increased sense of foreboding. Bennett’s prose engenders a wonderful sense of unease. The troupe are grotesque without ever becoming clichéd. George peels back his father’s life like an onion. Each layer torn away leaves him more and more disillusioned.
I did feel the novel was a little too long. There are many good ideas in ‘The Troupe’, possibly too many. Some ideas could have been kept back for future novels. Interesting as they were, they added little to the novel overall. When my attention wandered I began to notice that George could be really irritating. Fair enough, he’s a teenage boy, so some self-absorption is justified, but I found his whinging woebegone attitude irksome. Of course, this could just be great character writing! The exact mechanics of the story’s central mystery didn’t completely convince me either. It was certainly atmospheric, but I couldn’t quite get a grip on how it was all supposed to work.
The novel’s denouement is a masterclass in pacing and misdirection. The novel, it turns out, isn’t quite about what you thought it was. Beyond the mystery and the mythology is a tale far more mundane. It’s about the power of family. I found the closing chapters surprising and deeply affecting. Bennett could easily have screwed his ending up, but he manages that difficult task of giving his readers what they need, rather than what they want. He avoids cloying sentimentality and delivers an emotionally pitch perfect conclusion. The Troupe is atmospheric and stuffed with ideas. It is filled with sparkling prose with a host of real and grotesque characters. This is the first Robert Jackson Bennett book I’ve read, and it surely won’t be the last.