Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Sebastian Barry, Setting

‘Annie Dunne’ by Sebastian Barry


Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 228 pages; 2002.

Annie Dunne is Sebastian Barry‘s second novel. And what a truly moving, gentle, eloquent read it is.

Having read Barry’s two latter novels — the brilliant A Long Long Way (which, incidentally, features characters introduced in Annie Dunne) and the slightly flawed The Secret Scripture — I had high expectations for this one. I wasn’t disappointed.

The story is pretty much devoid of plot. In fact, not much happens in the book at all. It’s essentially the inner monologue of a spinster, the 59-year-old Annie Dunne of the title, who shares a house with her slightly older cousin, Sarah Cullen, and spends one summer looking after her nephew’s two young children. The unnamed children, a four-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl, bring a new dimension to Annie’s sheltered and relatively lonely life. Essentially, they are a metaphor for new beginnings, but can Annie let go of her troubled past to start afresh with two youngsters in her charge?

This probably sounds like a dull premise for a novel, and to be honest, I did wonder whether the story was going to go anywhere. But Barry has such a way with words — he’s a terrrific prose writer — that it doesn’t really matter. This is the type of writing that you savour. It’s completely cliché free and every sentence has a fresh, new wonder to it. It’s like looking at the world from a different angle, one you’ve never thought to consider before. For instance, who would ever think to compare laughter to jam-making?

Sarah laughs. Her laugh is thick and chesty, like blackberries beginning to bubble in the big pot, when we are making preserves in the autumn.

The entire novel is littered with sentences like this, making it a joy to read.

And somehow, because Barry captures the minutiae of daily life so eloquently, the story sings in such a way you want to keep reading.

Of course, I’m exagerrating to say that nothing happens, because of course lots of things happen, but they are small incidents in the scheme of things. It’s set in 1959, a period of great change in rural Ireland, as horse and carts became replaced by motor cars, and country lanes were transformed by tarmac, and where the once ruling Anglo-Protestant classes were readjusting to life under Home Rule. But it’s Annie’s inner turmoil that gives the story the impetus to make the reader keep reading on.

Annie is a product of her time. A woman nearing 60 who has never married, never had children, not because she never wanted to, but because the opportunity never presented itself. There is, however, the little matter of her deformity — a hunchback caused by polio. It’s an affliction that has scarred her psychologically, but it has also tormented her in the sense she has always been an outcast.

Never one to fit in socially, she’s developed a rich inner life, and it’s her interior monologue, her thoughts, both good and bad, ugly and unflinching, which make up the prose of this book. It’s written in the present tense so there’s an immediacey to it. Much of what she thinks in the present is shaped by the past, and despite her sometimes cruel thoughts and her quick temper, this is a woman struggling to better herself despite her painful history. What shines through is her fierce intelligence, but also her harsh inner critic, the one that tells her to stop babbling and saying things she shouldn’t be saying.

It is Annie’s struggle with jealousy and rage that marks her out as peculiarly human. She is constantly misunderstood by those around her. And it is that dichotomy between what Annie feels inside and the way her actions are interpreted by others which provides the tension — and the heart-breaking emotion — that makes this novel a truly special one.

Yes, it’s occasionally maudlin and melancholy, but Annie Dunne also has quiet moments of joy and happiness. There is beauty in nature here, too, and a love for a simple way of life that no longer exists. I expect this novel, which has now earned Sebastian Barry a place on my list of favourite writers, will stay with me for quite a long time to come.

14 thoughts on “‘Annie Dunne’ by Sebastian Barry”

  1. Phew, I’ve already got this one on the TBR.
    Two new books arrived in the mail today and I always feel guilty about the book budget when that happens and try not to order anything for at least a week LOL.


  2. Ok, you have convinced me: I have to read something by Sebastian Barry. I actually have had The Secret Scripture on my list of books to acquire and read for a couple of years now, but haven’t felt particularly motivated. Now I know that if I should come across any of his books, I would be well served to pick them up!


  3. The Auster reader mentioned in a previous comment and I both thought that ‘A Long Long Way’ should have won the Booker that year and although I agree the ‘The Secret Scripture’ is flawed, Barry’s flawed is a lot better than many writer’s perfect. Do you know there’s a new one due ‘On Canaan’s Side’ in August?


  4. Oh I love Sebastian Barry…I’d be happy to read his shopping lists quite honestly because I bet even those say nice things about the spuds or the loo rolls!
    Normblog praised this one to the hilt a while ago too Kim and I have it ready and waiting. I try and space Barry books out because they are so rich everything lasts me for months after I have finished them, and don’t ask me how I’m keeping my hands off a proof of his latest novel On Canaan’s Side due out in August.
    I have to agree with Annie, I too thought A Long Long Way should have won the Booker and that The Secret Scripture had that flaw…but having read more about Barry’s reasoning behind that ending I have forgiven all because as you so rightly say Annie, his flawed is way better than perfect elsewhere.


  5. In my case, I think the only cure for not adding to the TBR is to simply stop reading book blogs or looking at Amazon on a daily basis! LOL! Seriously, though, you must bump this one up the pile: it’s a tremendously moving read.


  6. I don’t think you can go wrong with Barry. I’ve still got his debut novel to read but hanging on to it for a bit longer… don’t want to be in a situation when I have no more Barry left in the pile!


  7. The Secret Scripture is a truly lovely book, Steph. I wasn’t so enamoured of the ending, but in the grand scheme of things I was truly glad to have read it. My personal favourite, however, is A Long Long Way. I still think about that book five years after having read it. Yes, it’s that good.


  8. I think Sebastian Barry was unlucky not to have won the Booker that year, but I did so enjoy the winner, John Banville’s The Sea. (Banville’s another favourite of mine, although I seem to have neglected him lately. I read his early stuff some 15 years ago.)
    Yes, I knew about Barry’s new one (see this post ) and, needless to say, I am really looking forward to reading it. 🙂


  9. Do you mean to say you have a proof of ‘On Canaan’s Side’ already?? If I had a copy it would be devoured in a matter of days. I do so admire your restraint, Lynne! 😉
    And yes, Barry is one of those authors you need to ration out in order to prolong the joy. I’ve had this one in the queue since my last trip to Dublin in July 2009. I’ve still got Eneas McNulty waiting for me though…


  10. This sounds wonderful Kim, I have been meaning to read another Barry novel for a while as I really liked The Secret Scripture and would like to read more of his novels especially ones like this. I do love books where nothing seems to be happening and yet so much does (rather like with Jennifer Johnston who you kindly introduced me to) so if I can find this at the library I will have to give it a whirl.


  11. i enjoyed the review particularly as it tallied with my enjoyment of S.Barry’s book.
    I found many of the themes similar to those of William Trevor. In Barry’s Annie Dunne he captures, in the longer novel format, what Trevor does so brilliantly in the short storey format.


  12. That’s an interesting point, Martin. I think you’re probably right re: your comparison with Trevor.
    I read Annie Dunne a year ago, but the story has really stayed with me. It was only later that I discovered that the little boy in the book is the real Sebastian Barry and Annie is his real aunt.


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