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by Michael Mortensen

From its evocative opening sentences to its startling yet inevitable finale, Karnival, the debut novel from American expatriate and long-time Toronto resident Michael Mortensen, weaves a compelling spell. Mortensen draws on his 15 years of Canadian National Exhibition experience to take the reader on the road with Klieg’s Karnival, a “truck show” running from coast to coast. Mortensen allows readers behind the carnival curtains and into the trailers and bedrooms, into a world of freaks more human than many we would consider normal.

Narrated by a half-blind clairvoyant dwarf, Karnival, despite its compactness, sprawls over three generations and almost 69 years. Nothing is held back, from the freewheeling surreality of the carnival to the all-too-real horrors (incest, rape, child abuse, birth defects) of the outside world. Mortensen never flinches, depicting the most horrific and fantastic elements with an equally unblinking gaze. It’s strong stuff (and the opening pages, which documents everything from sexual abuse to cannibalism, may simply be too extreme for some readers), but Mortensen writes with a level and respectful tone that never reaches for mere effect.

There is nothing so trite as a “respect everybody no matter how they look” message implicit in Karnival. Instead, Mortensen has created a vividly true world, populated with misfits and cast-offs, runaways and seekers. The evocative writing normalizes this potentially grotesque cast of eccentrics, revealing the human dynamics of the freaks that the “shills” are paying good money to see.