Goodreads.com – a one-star review at that – is from a reader who confesses to not having finished the book, doesn't appear from their account actually to have read any of it and misspells Mackenzie's name (twice). It was unknown to me before coming across this copy, despite having read some of Mackenzie's other early works. But, like J B Priestley, he seems to be one of those hugely prolific men of letters who are now only remembered for one or two works - in his case, two slices of Scottishry in the form of Whisky Galore and Monarch Of The Glen. But much as he is now associated with that part of the UK (he was also a founder of the SNP), Mackenzie wrote some excellent works of London fiction early in his career, the most notable of which is his 1914 magnum opus Sinister Street. Carnival was published two years earlier and there's as much here to enjoy for the dedicated London novel enthusiast. Interestingly, there appears to be a new edition on the way, and it's a novel that certainly merits rediscovery.
Anyone expecting the melodramatic potboiler suggested by this Panther edition, however, would probably be disappointed. The story of dancer Jenny Pearl, which starts with her birth in the fictitious respectable-working-class Hagworth Street, Islington, proceeds at a measured pace, especially the account of her early years; several chapters elapse before the action even ventures beyond Hagworth Street. But hard-going it isn't. Mackenzie is a meticulous and careful writer, and especially successful at conveying how childhood experiences, often involving adult behaviour that seems mysterious and incomprehensible at the time – inform his key characters. (He would take this idea much further with the story of Michael Fane in Sinister Street). Jenny, daughter of a feckless father but a strong, strict and loving mother develops a vehement desire to train as a ballet dancer but, due in part to her reluctance, once she's been set on her chosen path, to apply herself to her art, ends up in the career graveyard that is Piccadilly's Orient Palace of Varieties. It's there she encounters the upper-middle-class would-be artist Maurice Avery, and their passionate but unconsummated affair – and Maurice's importuning of Jenny to take their relationship to another level – form the key part of the story.
This all takes place amid a large cast of characters and a vividly evoked turn-of-the-century London with all its pleasures. And there's a noticeably more frank – and grown-up – treatment of sex than one would find in English novels of the Victorian era that had only ended just over a decade previously (indeed, Mackenzie also drops surprising hints here and there about darker sexual practices and proclivities).To modern readers, the character of Jenny is refreshingly independent, strong and
"Is that right?" murmured Irene. "Is what right?" "About getting off with a fellow in the stalls?" "You're not nosy, are you? Oh, no, it's only a rumour. But if you want to know, it's nothing to do with you."And despite the final section, it's as a predominantly London-set tale of great subtlety and superbly realised characterisation that this is likely to linger in ones mind.