I enjoy carnivals, circuses, harlequins, masks, mystery, and the complete overturning and subversion of social norms, rules, and conventions that goes with them. One of my favourite books is Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus where all of these reach a certain peak (The Stitched-up Girl), and I had something similar in mind when I reached for Stephanie Garber’s Caraval. It seemed to have all the right ingredients: a carnival cloaked in mystery, female protagonists, illusions and delusions, abusive men, preposterously flamboyant dresses, romance, and sisterhood in the foreground, however, Garber’s way of putting all of these together seems to be altogether lacking.
The world of Caraval is reminiscent of the Venetian carnival, however with a somewhat menacing magical twist. Scarlett and her sister Donatella (Tella) are daughters of the abusive Governor Dragna of the island of Trisda. Their mother has disappeared leaving their bitter father to raise them the only way that he knows – with threats and violence. The only comfort comes from their grandmother Anna, who used to tell them wonderful stories about Caraval, a magical carnival that took place on Trisda when Anna was young. Scarlett’s dream of partaking in Caraval comes true when, upon her arranged engagement to a mysterious count whom she has never met, the master of Caraval finally responds to her letters and sends her three invitations. The way out from Trisda presents itself in the form of Julian, a dashing sailor with a ‘wolfish smile’ who offers to take them there in exchange for one of the invitations. The girls seemingly manage to escape their abusive father, but this is were their adventure actually begins. Caraval is full of twists, turns, sharp bends, and frantic reading rollercoaster rides. You can’t trust anybody, including your own senses, and you are constantly pulled out of and plunged back into the mist of unknowing. However, despite the riveting excitement of the game, novel still lacks in certain key elements, such as language and character development.
Scarlett is nudging towards a stereotypical gothic novel heroine, who gets herself into trouble and then needs to be rescued, usually by a man. Her sister Tella is much more adventurous and rebellious in her nature, leaving Scarlett somewhat pale and overly prudish in her choices, however, Tella is almost overlooked throughout the book only to emerge at the very ending as one of the main motivators behind the entire story. Scarlett, on the other hand, is tremendously fearful and indecisive. She constantly tries playing by the rules in a game that has no rules, she tries to avoid taking any risks as much as possible, she is the typical elder sister used to be in charge of everyone else around her. Even though the novel’s driving force is the sisters’ love for each other. rather than focusing on the relationship between them, the novel is more invested in the challenge of taking charge of your own story when you are the victim of terrible abuse. Scarlett is constantly driven by other people, she seems unable to stand up for herself, she forgives and forgets, and ultimately gives off the impression of a complete weakling, a doormat that will throw itself before the feet of anybody willing to tread on it.
Garber’s writing is plain and straightforward, but it often swerves into repetitiveness, cliche, and rather meagre use of figurative language. The intricate and gripping storyline is muddled by a shallow romance, where neither of the characters seems to grow and evolve. Scarlett is far too uncertain and repetitive in her thoughts, actions, and insecurities. She remains a prude throughout the novel, and at one point I started growing tired of her fear to sleep in the same bed as a man who is not her fiancé, or the fear that her father is going to throw a tantrum if he finds out what’s happening. The initial empathy gets worn thin through repetition and subsequently replaced by eye-rolling and underlying annoyance. The forbidden romance and the mounting tension is meant to be the spice flavouring the entire plot, showing how multi-dimensional and well-rounded Garber’s characters could be, but instead, from the very beginning it is presented as a series of cliched, tawdry moments filled with sighs, gasps, stares overflowing with meaning, and accidental grips and touches powerful enough to merely excite an already susceptible 15-year-old. It took me a while to get rid of the cynicism that had accumulated through numerous cheesy descriptions of Julian’s well-defined muscles, his ‘dark’ stare, his ‘wolfish’ smile, and the strong grip he had over Scarlett’s hips and lower back. The romance was supposed to be an integral part of the book, a vessel to open Scarlett’s eyes, to cause a dramatic change and render both of the characters stronger, however, it was quite poorly executed presenting her as nothing more than a damsel in distress who hesitates to make any moves forward without male guidance and protection.
The book ends on a cliffhanger leaving space for a sequel that is supposed put Tella’s story in the foreground. Tella is a far more rounded character than Scarlett, so let’s hope that Garber does her justice and does not cripple her by tying a ‘dark’, ‘handsome’, and ‘wolfish’ block of cheese around her neck.
2017 Erna G.