Book Review: 'Bacchanal'
In 1939, Eliza Meeks joins a traveling carnival—the G.B. Bacchanal—to get out of Baton Rouge, Florida, and to find her little sister and the parents who abandoned her. Eliza soon discovers that G.B. Bacchanal is home to a variety of people with peculiar talents that are comparable to her own strange ability to communicate with animals. But as Eliza searches for her family, an evil spirit searches for Eliza—and the fate of humankind rests in the hands of who reaches their goal first.
Bacchanal is the debut, dark fantasy novel by Veronica G. Henry. Told from various perspectives, this imaginative and enjoyable read deals with themes of belonging, identity, and destiny while incorporating diverse characters and elements of African folklore. Treading lightly yet honestly on issues of race and racism, Bacchanal focuses on Eliza as person—not a symbol—her struggle to know herself, where she comes from, and understand how her ancestry is linked with her fate.
Bacchanal does a superb job in the bridging of two worlds. There is the merging of the new world and the old world, the melding of fantasy and reality, and the poignant point that American history is Black history—the two cannot be separated or compartmentalized. The novel also gives representation to people from all walks of life. Henry’s characters are imaginative, otherworldly, and yet so real. Each character is written with a healthy mix of flaws, desires, and hope. No matter where they are from, what they have done, or what secrets they hold, the characters of Bacchanal are human to the core.
As the reader follows Eliza, and those who surround and seek her, they see a Depression-era America from a fresh perspective, fleshing out the history of this time with people who were left out of stories like The Grapes of Wrath. But as a fantasy, Bacchanal is an inspiriting way to look back. Henry sets the location and time with historical context that encompasses the central story without forcing out the fantasy elements, creating a place where wonderment and history coexist.
These coinciding events—real and imagined—harmonize and mesh into an exciting and informative read. In Bacchanal, an evil spirit who preys on children is lose in the American southlands, which can be as frightening as a severe drought that ravages the Midwest. A young Black woman carries the blood and gifts of her magical ancestors, which can be as awe-inspiring as the true story of Stephanie St. Clair, a Black woman, who rose to power as an underworld kingpin in 1920s and 1930s Harlem.
For fans of dark fantasy, sinister carnivals, and the everlasting battle between good and evil, Bacchanal shakes lose the cobwebs of those familiar tropes and genres. Readers seeking stories populated with diverse characters will revel in Bacchanal’s cast and find a fantastical and refreshing view of a moment in American history.
Author: Veronica G. Henry