ON CANAAN’S SIDE by Sebastian Barry

Book Quote:

“The sunlight didn’t miss its chance, and as we approached the first high point of the ride, it moved in behind a brassy cloud high above the river, and then suddenly, like a very thunderstorm of light, dropped a cascade of brightness the size of Ireland down on the water, so that the river halved into brightness and brilliance, and you would half suspect that there was a more mysterious ticketman somewhere, from the mountains of heaven, pulling heavenly switches.”

Book Review:

Review by Roger Brunyate  (SEP 18, 2011)

So here I was yesterday, pounding my treadmill, reading Sebastian Barry’s new novel, alternately sobbing and laughing aloud at the sheer magnificence of it, reveling in the exuberant brilliance of his writing. Admittedly, exertion at the gym calls forth such strong reactions, but the book had touched me quietly already with its first pages upon waking, and would retain its hold through the limpid ambiguity of its final paragraphs, read before going very late to bed. Yes, I finished it in a single day; I could not help myself. But there were many passages that I went back to reread more slowly and then more slowly still, just to savor the magic of Barry’s style.

The paragraph quoted above, coming almost halfway through the book, is the opening of a magnificent set piece, when Irish expatriate Lily Dunne and a fellow servant are taken by an admirer to ride their first-ever big dipper in Luna Park in Cleveland. “We poised, three beating hearts, three souls with all their stories so far in the course of ordinary lives, three mere pilgrims, brilliantly unknown, brilliantly anonymous, above a Cleveland fun park, with the wonderful catastrophe of the sunlight on the river, the capricious engineering of the tracks, the sudden happiness of knowing Joe…”. So begins a two-page paragraph, all in a single sentence, as the poise and the rush and the joy and the terror, laughing and crying all at the same time, becomes the pivot point for an entire life.

As indeed it is. “What is the sound of an eighty-nine-year-old heart breaking?” asks the second sentence in the book. Grief-stricken at the death of her grandson Bill, Lily wants only to write down her own memories, or make her confession as she calls it, before putting a quiet end to her own life too. Each chapter, headed simply “First Day without Bill” and so on, tells us a little bit about her present life and a lot about her past, until eventually the two meet up. She is living in the Hamptons, in a small cottage fixed up for her by her former employer for whom she worked as cook. Her memories take her back to the age of four, in the early years of the last century, when her father was a senior police officer in Dublin. Associated with the wrong side, unfortunately, for in the struggles for Irish independence, Lily and her fiancé are forced to flee to America with a price on their heads. The “Canaan’s Side” of the old hymn, the near bank of the Promised Land after the crossing of the Red Sea, is of course the USA, where Lily and her lover are forced to lead a fringe existence under assumed names. It will be long before she will feel herself truly American — the fun-park ride is a first hint of it — but she ends up surrounded by caring, tactful people who respect and even love her.

Here I get stuck. In revealing that the dead Bill was Lily’s grandson, I already anticipate something that Barry will reveal in his own good time, though only a dozen pages into the book. But his technique of adding facts only when truly important does make it very difficult to say any more about the plot. Suffice it to say that it will take Lily from the bloodshed of the Troubles in Ireland to an America moving from the heady Twenties through the Depression and several wars. All the men in Lily’s life will be touched by war, from the First World War that killed her beloved elder brother Willie to the First Gulf War that so affected her grandson Bill. The assassinations of the Sixties will also play a part, bringing to the surface issues of race that had been a dormant subtext from quite early on. I am not convinced that Barry can quite manage to sustain the story over such a long span; there are some chapters about two-thirds of the way through when the intensity flags somewhat, and a couple of revelations towards the end stretch credulity a little. But his ability to balance the epic with the intimate, as the book jacket rightly claims, is nonetheless amazing.

All Barry’s books begin, at least in back-story, at roughly the same place, with the agonized birth of the Irish state; he seems to extend the story further in time and place with each one. A Long Way (about Lily’s brother) addresses the paradox of Irish soldiers fighting for their country in Flanders only to be treated as traitors at home (a point which Barry gently parallels to the plight of Vietnam veterans here). The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty and The Secret Scripture follow the legacy of those conflicted loyalties deeper into the twentieth century, as does Annie Dunne, about Lily’s sister in the Fifties. On Canaan’s Side extends the story across the Atlantic, though it turns out to be more about America than Ireland, except in the marvelous poetry of the Irish voice. The Secret Scripture showed Barry’s remarkable ability to get into the mind of a very old woman, and that is one of the true joys of this book too. For what might have turned into a despairing wail of grief becomes instead a tapestry of light and wonder. I will let Lily have the final word:

“And I notice again in the writing of this confession that there is nothing called long-ago after all. When things are summoned up, it is all present time, pure and simple. So that, much to my surprise, people I have loved are allowed to live again. What it is that allows them I don’t know. I have been happy now and then in the last two weeks, the special happiness that is offered from the hand of sorrow.”

AMAZON READER RATING: from 68 readers
PUBLISHER: Viking Adult (September 8, 2011)
REVIEWER: Roger Brunyate
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Sebastian Barry
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:


September 18, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: End-of-Life, Facing History, Literary, World Lit, y Award Winning Author

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