Fiction – hardcover; Faber and Faber; 272 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Back in the summer I heard Sebastian Barry give a reading of his latest novel On Canaan’s Side at the Gallery space in Foyles. I’d heard Barry do a reading at DublinSwell and had been so astonished, amazed and awed by his performance, that I just knew this would be something as equally as special. I was right.
Barry isn’t like most authors, who will merely read an extract in a well-spoken voice — he inhibits the mindset of his characters, gives them accents, waves his arms about a lot and just generally brings his written words to life in a dramatic, almost over-the-top way. He is mesmerising to listen to, but he is also mesmerising to watch.
When I attended the event I hadn’t yet read the book. But when I did get around to cracking open the spine a day or two later, I couldn’t help but hear his voice in my head, with its gentle intonations and occasional outbursts of loud excitement. It made reading On Canaan’s Side a kind of aural-visual sensory experience and probably coloured my opinion of it a great deal.
A deeply intimate confessional
The story is a deeply intimate one. Essentially it is a confessional written by the elderly Lilly Bere, who is newly bereaved: her beloved grandson, a soldier returned from the “desert war”, has killed himself.
What is the sound of an eighty-nine-year-old heart breaking?
His death sparks off a stream of memories, not only of the times in which she raised him, but of her earlier life in Dublin and her subsequent immigration to America in the 1920s, a death warrant on her own head because of her engagement to a Black and Tan and her father’s role as chief superintendent of the Dublin Metropolitan Police — both enemies of the “new Ireland”.
Over the course of 17 days (each day is a separate chapter), Lilly recalls all the joys and tragedies of her own life during the past seven decades. It is heart-rending in places, hilarious in others. It is a life marked by a fiery determination to survive — against the odds — and to forge her own way without a support network.
A long bit of string and six chastened-looking pearls. Maybe my life is a bit like that.
And that’s what makes Lilly’s life so extraordinary — she has been cut off from her family back in Ireland and never sees them again. In this new land and new culture, she must survive alone. Initially, she has her fiancé for support, but that ends badly (it would be a plot spoiler to reveal how), and yet she somehow keeps her head above water and experiences some good fortune along the way.
A gift for storytelling
Plot-wise it would be easy to suggest that Barry has shoehorned in a few unlikely coincidences and scenarios — Lilly, for instance, gets to meet Martin Luther King — but that would be to take away from his exquisite prose and gift for storytelling.
I spent much of the book totally caught up in Lilly’s adventures, from her time on the streets of Cleveland — “I was a young down and out, right enough. I did not even have the inspiration to beg […]. I might have been murdered then, and no one would notice” — to her joy at having her eight-year-old grandson sing a song for Signor Devito, a famous teacher from the Metropolitan Opera.
So Bill began to sing ‘Roses of Picardy’, that he had got Mr Nolan to teach him, after I told him it was one of his great-uncle Willie’s favourite songs. As I say, he was only eight, and his youthful voice, singing a soldier’s song, made me cry, secretly, where I sat. Indeed I wished Willie could have been there to hear it; perhaps he was, his shade creeping near, from Flanders to Bridgehampton. To cock an ear to such sweet singing, with all his own suffering and the suffering of his companions contained in the song. As if, a ghost for some seventy years, he was hearing his own young self, magically renewed by the mercies of history.
As the above quote attests, there’s a real sense of family connection here, and of history occasionally repeating itself — Lilly’s brother, Willie Dunne, from Barry’s Booker shortlisted A Long Long Way, goes to war and two generations later her grandson does the same.
A life lived in fear
And it is this that puzzles Lilly so greatly. Having lived her life in fear, she cannot fathom why her grandson, living in “free” America, would chose to sign up when he “had a chance to enjoy some sort of victory over fear”.
There’s so much more about On Canaan’s Side that I could talk about — probably one reason why it’s taken my almost six months to put my thoughts in writing — but I won’t. I’ll just say this: if you are looking for a fascinating portrait of a life well lived, with gorgeous writing and startling insight into a woman’s view of a complicated, often harsh, world, then this extraordinary novel won’t disappoint.
Finally, you may also be intrigued to know that Lilly’s sister, Annie, is the subject of another book, Annie Dunne, which I read earlier in the year and adored. The Dunne family novels, which can be read in any order, are based on Barry’s own relatives. At the reading I attended, he said it was his way of reclaiming their untold histories.