Bacchanal by Veronica G. Henry is the author’s newly published, debut novel. Set during the Great Depression in the Southern United States, the story follows Eliza Meeks, a young black woman barely getting by in Baton Rouge, abandoned by her family many years previously. Thanks to a latent, otherworldly power that allows her to communicate with animals, she is noticed by a talent prospector and hired by the G. B. Bacchanal Carnival as a new crowd-drawing oddity.
Among the other carnies and strange folk, Liza finds a place to call home, but Bacchanal is not entirely as it seems. Lurking behind the games, attractions, and sweet treats is a demonic being that feeds on innocent lives and imbues the carnival with the presence of spirits from beyond the veil. Only Liza has a chance at stopping her, if she can come to understand the true nature of her burgeoning powers.
I’d been particularly looking forward to checking this book out since I received my ARC copy. A nearly-all-black traveling carnival navigating 1930s America and secretly controlled by a soul-hungry African demon was a strong enough premise that it hooked me all on its own. When I did finally start reading it, the story was a surprisingly slow burn, especially during the early phases, while also showing a lot of its hand. There was still plenty to be revealed as the book went on, but the nature of the demon Ahiku, for instance, her control of the carnival and general goals, were made fairly clear to the reader in the early chapters. She made for a great villain that we get to know early on, ruthless and cunning, yet oddly caring for what she deems to be hers.
A lot of appreciable time is spent establishing the carnival itself, bringing Liza into the fold, introducing who she is going to have meaningful relationships with, and what her place in this little community is going to be. My most favourite parts were these early and middle chapters, especially considering the problem Liza has with her powers. She can use them, after a fashion, but doesn’t fully understand how to build rapport with an animal she’s trying to communicate with. Oftentimes, the experience overwhelms and kills them. These are wonderfully high stakes for someone in her position, compounded by the fact that the animals she has to work with are a Tasmanian tiger and a large turtle from Africa; neither can be easily replaced.
I really enjoyed Liza as a protagonist. She was assertive, proud, and clever in a time when so many don’t want that from a woman of colour, while still internally plagued by uncertainty and marred by her family abandoning her. Her abilities, which grow into something much more, felt like a burden as much as a gift. She really struggles to accept and understand them, which was meaningfully tied to how black people in America were displaced from the culture of their homelands. Watching her relationships unfold with friends and lovers alike as she navigated carnival life was captivating. As she mounted the stage to perform her first show I felt her anxiety vicariously, which cemented just how much the book’s characters had won me over.
The myriad of supporting characters were great too. Though relatively less developed than Liza, each had a distinct voice and presence in my mind. From the affable and imposing strongman Bombardier, to the snooty but not unkind burlesque dancer Autumn, to the complex and morally tortured Clay, who runs the carnival upfront, each of them made the story just a little richer. The carnival itself felt like a character all its own too, especially with the way its myriad of nameless spirits inflicted mischief and mayhem on an unfortunate few of their patrons. There was some really good horror writing in these self-contained chapters, where patrons have uncanny experiences or meet unfortunate ends (some being more deserved than others).
The only sticking point for me was how underdeveloped the plot felt, specifically as it concerns Liza and her eventual adversary Ahiku. It was obvious pretty much from the get-go that a confrontation between the two was inevitable. Despite this, the book never really built up to it, beyond bits of foreshadowing here and there. Liza has a continual curiosity about the mysterious red trailer that houses this demon, but this curiosity doesn’t really bloom into anything more meaningful. Ahiku is searching for descendants of an enemy, which secretly includes Liza, and Liza is forewarned about an impending confrontation, but she just braces herself for something unknown to her. They spend most of the book virtually unaware each other, yet right under each other’s noses.
With Ahiku occasionally feeding on children from each town the carnival visits, I feel like an opportunity was lost by not having Liza, even passively, looking into these disappearances and slowly unraveling the truth of who runs the carnival, setting the two on a more obvious collision course. There was a lot of potential in a dilemma with Ahiku’s destruction spelling an end to the carnival itself too, which l employs so many black carnies and performers, whom the demon ensures are well taken care of. To bring about her end would destroy the livelihoods of so many who would struggle to prosper like this without her. This does get touched upon at one point, but it is much too shallow. There’s no question that a demon who eats the souls of children must be stopped, but I would have liked if the characters had to wrestle with themselves a little more over this quandary.
The ending of the book was also woefully hurried, so much so that it was actually jarring. I was quite happy with the climactic showdown when it came to it, erupting in a veritable explosion of magic and otherworldly power, but the aftermath was in an awful hurry to shove things along toward the epilogue. I loved these characters and the life they had together with the carnival, and there was so much baggage still left lying around that I just found it bizarre that the narrative was suddenly no longer exploring any of it. Much was just glossed over and some fates were left completely vague, in a way that left me feeling without proper closure. All of a sudden a book that was great at taking its time concluded a number of things unceremoniously.
A final, more positive element of note about the book was the way that black American history and African folklore were woven into the story. Yoruba religion from what is now Southwestern Nigeria plays a big part in the origins of Ahiku the demon, as well as the source of Liza’s powers, but there were also a lot of great, smaller details. Ahiku is guarded by two fierce soldier women from the Kingdom of Dahomey, which fell to French annexation in 1904. Madame Stephanie St. Clair, a notorious racketeer based in Harlem who resisted pressure from the Italian mafia after the end of prohibition, also plays a minor role. The sinister Eloko, a dwarf-like creature part human and part animal, with grass growing out of him like fur, hails from the nation of Zaire, lurking its forests and feeding on human flesh, before he found his way to the carnival. With European history, folklore, and mythologies often so ubiquitous in fiction, these details in the story were refreshingly intriguing and I appreciated being able to learn about them through this story.
Despite my issues with the plot, there’s still a lot to love about Bacchanal. Between the good, the bad, and the morally dubious, all of the characters had great presence on the page and strong personalities that I’m sure will stay with me. The world was one I’d have been happy to read about for many pages more. The mystical elements made for an engaging blend of fantasy and horror too, which could frighten as much as enchant. An imperfect, yet auspicious start for Veronica Henry.
My Rating 3.5 out of 5
I received a digital Advance Reading Copy of this book from Wunderkind PR in exchange for my honest opinion. This has in no way impacted my review.