The Troupe

The Troupe

The Troupe by Robert Jackson Bennett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“What I’m going to do up here, kid, is tell you a story. Like all stories, it’s an attempt to make sense of something larger than itself. And, like most stories, it fails, to a certain degree. It’s a gloss, a rendition, so it’s not exact. But it’ll do.”

I’m going to see Paranormal Cirque this weekend and am insanely excited. In anticipation, I picked up The Troupe. While not about a circus, it is about a vaudevillian troupe, which is similar in feel. And though not exactly in the horror genre, I know from experience with his Divine Cities trilogy that Robert Jackson Bennett often weaves horror elements into his novels, and he does so deftly. I’m so incredibly glad I picked up this book. Because as excited as I am about seeing Paranormal Cirque, I already know that The Troupe will stay with me longer than any performance could. It turned out to be an absolutely beautiful story, and I read the last sixty or so pages through a haze of tears.

“Sometimes the last walk is all that’s left.”
“Every inch was a battle, every step a war.”

George is a surly teenager who is already an incredibly gifted musician. The he hears that the Silenus Troupe is expected in a city not too far away, George quits his job as house pianist for a theater and sets off to finally see the show that is infamous for its audience’s inability to remember what they saw when the curtain falls. George has been obsessed with the show for years, not only because of its mystique but because Silenus, the leader of the troupe, is George’s father. Silenus just doesn’t know it yet. Finally, after yearning for so long, George sees both the show and his father. There’s a slight problem, though; George can remember the performance, which is supposed to be impossible. And to make matters worse, wolves in men’s clothing are hunting the troupe, and it looks like George has no choice but to go along for the ride.

“If you were to inspect my shoes, you would find on their soles the soil of a thousand countries. My many coats have soaked up the salty air of all the seven seas. Were you to see my dustbin you would find a dozen hats, all drained of color by distant suns. There are the lengths I have gone to to procure our world’s greatest treasure, our most precious resource, our most secret and unpredictable wonder… Entertainment.”

The entire novel is built around the Silenus Troupe’s unique mission: to perform what fragments they can find of the Song of Creation in order to keep the dark Nothingness from consuming their world. I’m always a sucker for books that feature musicians as central characters, but very rarely have I found a story in which music itself plays so significant a role. This music was conveyed so powerfully, so movingly, that there were instances that made my breath catch in my throat. I firmly believe in the power of music, and its ability to reach keeping into the human heart that any spoken or written word. Lyrics have had a profound impact in my life, especially when paired with beautifully crafted melodies. I think that music can move and enrage and incite and heal unlike any other medium on earth. And I felt that power in Bennett’s take on the Song of Creation.

“I think art… I think it’s making something from nothing, basically. It’s taking something as simple as a movement, or a few notes, or steps, or words, and putting them all together so that they’re bigger than what they ever could have been separate. They’re transformed. And just witnessing that transformation changes you. It reaches into your insides and moves things around. It’s magic, of a sort.”

This book was also far deeper philosophically that I anticipated. Questions of creation and purpose and intelligent design wove themselves between darker questions regarding the problems of pain, and loss, and letting go. Hope and hopelessness mingled in discussions of the Creator and the intentions behind creation. If existence hurts so much, then why do we strive to continue on? It is worth it?

“I’ve come to some decisions recently, you see, and I think… I think that, even though existing is very painful sometimes, and very confusing, I think I would like it to… go on.”

Relationships in all their forms was also a central theme. Whether between friends, or lovers, or children with their parents, the bonds of relationship were presented as simultaneously imperative and heartbreakingly fragile. These relationships were often not what they first appeared to be, and two such relationships were sources of my aforementioned tears as the novel drew to a close. The ties between performers who travel and work together day in and day out are always tight, messy, tangled things, and the Silenus Troupe demonstrated this better than most. Each had their own breathtaking talent, and behind each talent lay immense, almost incomprehensible pain. The gnarled backstage reality of the troupe fulfilled the idea of beauty rising from ashes better than almost any such picture I’ve come across. Often, the best art, the art that moves us and stays with us long after the song is over or the last page is read, is spawned by pain. There’s a reason that artists are so often described as tortured. I love the rawness Bennett allowed his readers to see in his characters, as well as the beauty of their performances.

“But sometimes people just leave, kid. You can’t let the leaving or the absence rule you. We must all be the authors of our own lives now.”

I honestly don’t know what else to say. As much as I adored the Divine Cities, this book surpassed that trilogy in my heart. The Troupe moved me, and it spoke so deeply to my heart. I loved the characters, and the setting, and the writing. But most of all, I loved the Song. This is a standalone novel, and though I can compare it loosely to The Night Circus in setting and The Ocean at the End of the Lane in tone, it is utterly unique among the hundreds upon hundreds of books I’ve read in my life. It’s an instant favorite for me, and I implore you to read it and experience that same magical, musical power for yourself.

“Things do not stop. They move on without us. It is a truth so great that most people must invent and live lies to deny it.”

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