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Onyx reviews: The Matchmaker of Kenmare by Frank Delaney

The Matchmaker of Kenmare is the sequel to Venetia Kelly's Traveling Show, in which Ben MacCarthy met and married the eponymous older woman after his father became enamored of her, only to have her taken away under mysterious and confusing circumstances. Taking advantage of the fact that his work gathering stories for the Irish Folklore Commission requires him to travel the country, he has been searching for his missing wife for the better part of a decade. By now he's reasonably sure she's dead, but he holds out a bit of hope that she might be alive somewhere. He asks everyone he meets on his travels if they know Venetia or one of the men who might have been responsible for her fate.

The book is written as a monologue between Ben at an advanced age and his (presumably adult) children, a little like the conceit of How I Met Your Mother. As he continues his tale of Venetia Kelly and his quest to discover what became of her, he tells of the time in his life when he meets Kate Begley, the matchmaker of Kenmare, who lives in a cottage on a cliff on the edge of the Atlantic in southwestern Ireland. Kate finds wives for sailors and husbands for her fellow countrywomen, a family tradition still practiced by her grandmother, who raised her. Kate's parents died at sea when she was young, but, like Ben, she hopes against hope that they will turn up alive some day. Because of the traditional nature of her job, Ben, who is immediately bewitched by her, finds excuses to observe her plying her trade, returning to her little cottage any time he can make a credible excuse to be in that part of the country.

Despite his persistence, Ben's approach to Kate is overly cautious, so he misses his chance with her. She meets and falls in love with an American special forces officer in Britain to prepare for the D-Day landing. Captain Charles Miller asks Kate to act as a spy on his behalf and Ben is easily convinced to accompany her, after they spend time in London to upgrade their French and German skills. London during wartime, where bombs fall and buildings lie in ruin, is a completely different experience to what the young man and woman are used to in neutral Ireland.

During their first foray abroad, they interface with the resistance and escort back to Ireland a German who has information valuable to the Allies. Their supposed neutrality allows them to travel more or less freely through occupied Europe, using Ben's profession as a folklorist as a cover. Here the book takes a dramatic turn. Kate and Ben's adventures in Europe are harrowing, portraying a perspective on the of war seldom seen in fiction. The entire continent isn't ablaze with battles. Some villages in France, Belgium and even Germany are relatively untouched at times, though the possibility of being bombed or overrun by armies advancing or retreating is ever present. Life goes on in, but it is a surreal existence, as if laughing to ward off the devil. In one of their earliest experiences with the fickle nature of war, Kate and Ben hear a bomb fall and see it land nearby, only to have it turn out to be a dud.

When Kate's husband goes missing, she uses her legendary skills (involving dangling needles and maps) to pinpoint his location and drags Ben along to find him, despite reliable reports that he was killed in battle. Kate's steadfast refusal to believe that he is dead can be infuriating and frustrating at time, for both Ben and the reader. She lives in denial, but her behavior is consistent with the way she continued to think that her parents might someday return home. And Ben can't criticize her too much because of his own awkward situation vis--vis Venetia.

Their adventures are harrowing, and their Irish neutrality only takes them so far. They encounter hostiles on both sides of the conflict. Even though Germany is in retreat by now, the Nazis aren't giving up without a fight. Ben and Kate are taken prisoner at one point and their situation seems dire. Ben especially feels the impact of the war when it forces him to confront aspects of his personality that he never suspected he possessed—most of them unfavorable.

The relationship between Kate and Ben is fascinating. They have moments of intimacy, even spending nights together naked, but they only go so far. Kate doggedly believes that she will find her missing husband and Ben trails along behind her like a lovesick puppy dog, which is closer to the truth than he's willing to admit. He follows her to New York to meet the troop ships returning at the end of the war, returns to Germany to attend the war crimes trial of someone they encountered years earlier, and tags along when Kate heads for the heartland of America, in the company of a corpulent man, a young and rapidly growing giraffe and a pet pig. This part of the novel is reminiscent of something John Irving might have written, coupled with the presence of circuses and traveling shows.

This is a book with a big heart and a mysterious soul, colored with a healthy infusion of Irish folklore and a sense of the Emerald Isle during the first half of the 20th century. Ben's choices aren't always good ones. He subjugates part of his life out of love for a woman he seemingly can never have. Despite his diffidence, when it comes to making the difficult decisions he comes off as a sort of hero in his own life and in Kate's, though the characters discover that getting what they want doesn't always guarantee a happy ending. 

In the same vein, there is a sort of resolution to the mystery of Venetia, though it's not clear whether that chapter is closed for Ben or not. The book's final pages seem a clear indication that the author plans to return to the colorful and event-filled life of Ben MacCarthy.

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