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

‘Old God’s Time’ by Sebastian Barry

Fiction – Kindle edition; Faber & Faber; 272 pages; 2023. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Sebastian Barry has long been one of my favourite authors so I was excited to read his latest novel, the first to return to Irish shores since The Secret Scripture published in 2008.

Old God’s Time — his ninth novel  is set in Dublin in the 1990s and tells the story of a retired policeman who is brought back to help investigate a “cold case”. But this is not a conventional crime novel.

In fact, it’s the kind of novel that refuses to be boxed in. It’s full of contradictions: complex and multi-layered, yet it’s also a page-turner and effortless to read. It’s an examination of memory, love and survival, blackly humourous in places, harrowing in others — but it should probably come with a trigger warning because at its centre is the utterly vile crime of child sexual abuse as carried out by priests in the Catholic Church.

The pursuit of rough justice

Told in the third person but from the perspective of retired detective Tom Kettle, it examines the idea of rough justice (as opposed to judicial justice). It asks some uncomfortable questions about what happens to survivors when no one is listening.

Tom, a widower, still mourns his beloved wife, June, who was violently and cruelly abused by a priest as a child. His two adult children, Winnie and Joseph, are both dead.

He lives in a lean-to annexed to a Victorian castle in Dalkey, an upmarket Dublin suburb, overlooking the Irish Sea. For some nine months, he’s been content to live a quiet life, alone with just his thoughts where “he had grown to love this interesting inactivity and privacy”. But when two young detectives from his old division come knocking at his door, the past comes back to haunt him in ways he had never quite imagined.

Mind games

The narrative swings between past and present, and sometimes it’s impossible to determine what is real and what is imagined. Tom’s memories, recalled in exacting detail, seem more vivid than his reality, as the line between thoughts and the real world blur.

Things once fresh, immediate, terrible, receding away into old God’s time, like the walkers walking so far along Killiney Strand that, as you watch them, there is a moment when they are only a black speck, and then they’re gone. Maybe old God’s time longs for the time when it was only time, the stuff of the clockface and the wristwatch. But that didn’t mean it could be summoned back, or should be. He had been asked to reach back into memory, as if a person could truly do that.

And while there is a dark undercurrent that pulls Tom along, one that leads to a shocking denouement toward the end, there are lighter moments to provide some relief.

The romance between Tom and June is beautifully told and a real joy to read, but it’s often the witty asides that keep things on an even keel. For example, one of the detectives who comes a-calling is described as “a nice big lump of a young man with a brushstroke for a moustache, a touch Hitlerian if the truth were known”. In another example, a barber describes a haircut as a “Number One, like the child’s phrase for taking a piss”.

Exquisite prose

As ever with a Barry novel, the prose is exquisite. He’s a master at crafting original similes: a ruby necklace is “held tense on her lined neck, like insects on the very point of dispersal”; a meal of frankfurters and mash “lay in his belly like an early pregnancy’; and bed sheets are “so full of nylon they were like an electric storm over Switzerland”.

In just a few carefully chosen words he can conjure up visual images that leave an impression in a reader’s mind. Instead of saying a character is fat, for instance, he says “good lunches and dinners had kept the lines out of his face”. And here’s a filmic description of girls being put to work in an orphanage that still stays with me:

Nuns cared more that the huge floors were polished, the girleens down on their knobbly knees, a long row of them, fifty, with the big polishing cloths. The hands lost in them like stones in snow.

Old God’s Time traverses some complex psychological territory but Barry handles harrowing issues with great sensitivity and humanity. It takes you on an emotional rollercoaster, from happiness to anger— and back again — and will leave you wrung out at the end. But this is a wonderfully haunting novel that has an important story to tell.

I read this book as part of Cathy’s #ReadingIrelandMonth23. You can find out more about this annual blog event at Cathy’s blog 746 Books.

6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Rodham’ to ‘Tampa’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeIt’s the first Saturday of the month, which means it’s time to participate in Six Degrees of Separation, a book meme that is hosted by Kate from booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

The starting point is:

‘Rodham’ by Curtis Sittenfeld (2020)

I haven’t read Rodham, but I know it’s based on Hilary Clinton and imagines what might have happened to the trajectory of her life had she not met and married Bill Clinton. Another book that takes a real person and fictionalises their life is…

Beatlebone by Kevin Barry

‘Beatlebone’ by Kevin Barry (2015)
This brilliantly inventive, funny, sad and wise novel fictionalises a short period in John Lennon’s life.  You don’t need to be a Beatles fan to enjoy it, because it’s a glorious adventure tale and the 37-year-old man at the heart of it could be almost anyone going through a personal and creative crisis.

Another book that is based on a real person, albeit someone who isn’t famous, is…

‘Annie Dunne’ by Sebastian Barry (2002)
This eloquent, heartfelt novel is about two children who go to stay with their aunt one summer in the late 1950s. That aunt, Annie Dunne, is actually Sebastian Barry’s own aunt — and Barry, himself, is the four-year-old boy in the story. Annie is not an easy person to like: she struggles with jealousy and rage, and is cantankerous and difficult. But her heart is in the right place.

Another book featuring a main character who is cantankerous and difficult is…

‘Amongst Women’ by John McGahern (1991)
Shortlisted for the 1990 Booker Prize, this is about an Irishman holed up at home in his dying days, surrounded by his three adult daughters who want him to get better despite the fact the relationship between them all is very strained. McGahern depicts Moran as all-too-human, someone who is so emotionally starved that you can feel nothing but pity for him. It’s a wonderfully realised portrait of an Irish Catholic family headed by a widower who manipulates his children using violence, emotional blackmail and an obstinate refusal to do anything that is not on his own terms.

Another book about a domineering, brutal father is…

‘The Book of Emmett’ by Deborah Forster (2010)
Set in working-class Melbourne, this story follows the lives of one family between the late 1960s and the present day. The central figure in the novel is Emmett Brown, an abusive, alcoholic father of four children, whose violent behaviour has long-lasting repercussions on his family. The book opens on the day of Emmett’s funeral. Another book that begins with a funeral is…

‘Death in Summer’ by William Trevor (1999)
In this rather dark story by one of my favourite writers, a widower interviews several young women in his search for a nanny to look after his baby daughter. One of the nannies he rejects develops an unhealthy obsession with him: she essentially becomes his stalker. While there’s a lovely aching quality to the overall storyline, there’s also an unspoken tension and unease, a kind of creepiness that pervades the woman’s motivations, which makes the book difficult to put down.

Another book about a woman who develops an unhealthy relationship and is similarly creepy is…

‘Tampa’ by Alissa Nutting (2013)
This book is quite outrageous and won’t be for everyone, seeing as it is about a female teacher grooming young male students for her sexual pleasure. It charts eighth grade English teacher Celeste Price’s obsession with a teenage student, Jack Patrick, and it’s fascinating and horrifying in equal measure, the literary equivalent of a car crash.

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a book about Hilary Clinton, to a story about a female teacher who is a paedophile, linked via a fictional story about John Lennon, a cantankerous auntie, a dying man, an abusive father and a widower stalked by the potential nanny he rejects. How dark this all sounds, but honestly, I heartily recommend each and every one of these titles.

Have you read any of these books? Care to share your own #6Degrees?

6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘The Dry’ to ‘Eugenia: A True Story of Adversity, Tragedy, Crime and Courage’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeI had so much fun doing last month’s Six Degrees of Separation book meme, that I’m back to do it again this month!

Six Degrees of Separation, which is hosted by Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest, is a great way of discovering new books and new authors to read. You can find out more about it via Kate’s blog, but essentially every month a book is chosen as a starting point and then you create a chain by linking to six other books using common themes.

Here’s this month’s meme. Hyperlinks will take you to my reviews.

The starting point is:

The Dry

‘The Dry’ by Jane Harper (2016)
The Dry is a wonderfully evocative literary crime novel set during Australia’s millennium drought. That same drought features in…

The Hands by Stephen Orr

1. ‘The Hands: An Australian Pastoral’ by Stephen Orr (2015)
Set on a remote cattle station in South Australia, The Hands tells the story of three generations of the same family living side by side. It explores the fraught tensions, mainly between fathers and sons, as the drought results in ever-diminishing returns and ever-increasing debts. This struggle to make a living on the land, leads me to…

2. ‘The Tie that Binds’ by Kent Haruf (1984)
Haruf’s debut novel follows the fortunes (or perhaps I should say misfortunes) of a pioneering farming family on the high plains of Colorado. This beautifully rendered drama depicts the loneliness and hardship of rural life, as well as the untold sacrifices one woman, Edith Goodenough, makes for her father and brother to ensure the farm remains operational against the odds. The novel is an extraordinary portrait of an ordinary woman, which is also the focus of…

3. ‘Bird in the Snow’ by Michael Harding (2008)
Bird in the Snow tells the story an 81-year-old Irish woman looking back on her life. Told in a series of vignettes laced with black humour and pathos, it shows how Birdie’s life has been marked by tragedy and other family dramas, but it has also been filled with great happiness, joy and love. Birdie’s reminiscences are sparked by the death of her son. An elderly Irish woman newly bereaved also stars in…

4. ‘On Canaan’s Side’ by Sebastian Barry (2011)
On Canaan’s Side is essentially a confessional written by the elderly Lilly Bere whose beloved grandson, a soldier returned from the “desert war”, has just killed himself. His death leads Lilly to think about her own life, including her early childhood in Dublin and her subsequent immigration to America in the 1920s with a death warrant on her head. Living a life in fear is also the subject of…

Fairyland by Sumner Locke Eliott

5. ‘Fairyland’ by Sumner Locke Elliott (1990)
Fairyland was Locke Elliott’s final novel but it could also be seen as a thinly veiled memoir of what it was like to grow up in the 1930s and 40s hiding your homosexuality from the real world. It is, by turns, a heart-rending, intimate and harrowing portrayal of one man’s search for love in an atmosphere plagued by the fear of condemnation, violence, prosecution and imprisonment. Hiding yourself from the real world is also the inspiration behind…

Eugenia by Mark Tedeschi

6. ‘Eugenia: A True Story of Adversity, Tragedy, Crime and Courage’ by Mark Tedeschi QC (2012)
The subject of this fascinating non-fiction book is Eugenia Falleni, who scandalised Australia in the 1920s when she was charged with the murder of her wife. She had been living as a man for 22 years and during that time had married twice. No one knew her true identity, not even the women whom she married — indeed, her second wife thought she was pregnant to him! As well as being a compelling true crime book, Eugenia: A True Story of Adversity, Tragedy, Crime and Courage is also an important story about a troubled individual, who spent her entire life in constant fear of being exposed, shamed and punished by a society that did not accept difference or anyone living outside the codes of what it perceived as “normal” and “moral” conduct. A completely compelling read.

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from an award-winning debut crime novel set in rural Australia through to a true story about a transgender man charged with murder in 1920s Sydney.

Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Sebastian Barry, Setting, USA, Western

‘Days Without End’ by Sebastian Barry

Days without end by Sebastian Barry

Fiction – hardcover; Faber & Faber;  272 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

You know when you have a favourite author and you cannot wait to read their next book and when it’s finally published you want to rip open the pages and devour it in one greedy gulp?

That’s how I feel whenever Irish author Sebastian Barry produces a new novel. I’ve read all his work (except for his debut novel, which I’m saving up) and loved them all: Annie Dunne (published in 2002); A Long Long Way (2005); The Secret Scripture (2008); On Canaan’s Side (2011); and The Temporary Gentleman (2014).

But when I read his latest novel, Days Without End, back in January, I came away from it feeling slightly disappointed and it’s taken me all this time to finally commit my thoughts to this blog.

A new life in America

Set in America during the mid-19th century, Days Without End tells the story of Thomas McNulty, a young Irishman who flees the Great Famine for a new life abroad. He signs up to the US Army and fights in the Indian Wars against the Native Americans, before joining the Oregon Trail and fighting in the American Civil War.

Along the way he meets and falls in love with “handsome John Cole”, a fellow soldier, and the pair live together as gay lovers, making their living between wars on stage dressing as women to entertain miners starved of female company.

While on the road they eventually “adopt” an indigenous girl, who has been orphaned under the most horrendous of circumstances, and raise her as their own. It’s a lovely counterpoint to the violence and the mayhem that surrounds them.

A compelling voice

Days Without End never shies away from the horrors of war and Barry refrains from turning Thomas into a hero. Instead he’s an uneducated teenager, who’s sailed across the ocean after the death of his parents and siblings, and he’s emotionally buttoned up, traumatised even, from replacing one hell hole (Ireland) with another (the American frontier). Any wonder that when he finds John Cole he sticks by him like a sailor lost at sea clinging to a life raft.

It is Thomas’s voice that makes the novel such a powerful read. He tells the story of his American adventure in lucid, stream-of-consciousness prose, with nary a pause for breath and a devout honesty, often when recalling the heat of battle, that is sometimes too painful to bear.

More sparks flew up, it was a complete vision of world’s end and death, in those moments I could think no more, my head bloodless, empty, racketing, astonished.

And of course Barry’s writing is as exquisite as ever, with beautiful turns of phrase, so lyrical it could be poetry, and every page dotted with unique descriptions that elevate ordinary things into the extraordinary. A herd of buffaloes stampeding towards them is like “a big boil of black molasses in a skillet, surging up”; soldiers digging trenches “sweat like window glass in the winter”; and dusk is “God pulling a ragged black cloth slowly across his handiwork”.

But for all the exquisite language, I had problems with this novel. It is unrelentingly violent and often gory — too gory for me, and I’m usually pretty hard to shock. It didn’t take long for me to grow bored with the never-ending amount of battles, raids and massacres depicted here, often in forensic detail.

The wounded are making the noises of ill-butchered cattle.Throats have been slit but not entirely.There are gurgles and limbs held in agony and many have stomach wounds that presage God-awful deaths.

And I never quite believed that two gay men in the Army would remain undetected for so long, or for Thomas to be so readily accepted as a woman. Of course, I’m processing the story through a 21st century mindset, and after hearing Barry talk about this book (I saw him do a reading at St George’s Church in Bloomsbury at the end of March), I came to understand that it would have been entirely possible — under the maelstrom of war you can do almost anything and take on different identities (or, in this case, genders) in order to survive.

In the grand scheme of things, my view on Days Without End doesn’t really matter. It’s a best seller and has already earned Barry the 2016 Costa Book of the Year. It has also been shortlisted for the 2017 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, the winner of which will be announced on 17 June.

For other views on this novel, please see Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers and Eric’s at Lonesome Reader.

10 books, Book lists

10 books on the International Dublin Literary Award longlist 2016

10-booksThe longlist for the 2016 International Dublin Literary Award, the world’s richest literary prize, was unveiled earlier this week. There are 160 titles on the list — from all corners of the world — all of which have been nominated by librarians, making it a proper “readers’ prize”.

I’ve read quite a few on the list, so I thought I would highlight 10 of my favourite ones here.

The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author surname. Click on each book title to read my review in full.

The Temporary Gentleman by Sebastian Barry
“Written in the form of a memoir, the book details Jack McNulty’s rather colourful life. It covers his time as a doltish student who meets and falls in love with the beautiful Mai Kirwan in the west of Ireland through to their rather tumultuous (and sad) marriage. He also relays his experiences as a ‘temporary gentleman’ in the British Army during the Second World War to his later career as an engineer and UN observer, mainly in Africa.”

Academy Street by Mary Costello
Academy Street
“This debut novel has been written with all the assuredness and maturity of someone who’s been honing their craft for years. It charts the life of Tess Lohan from her girlhood in rural Ireland to her retirement in New York more than half a century later. Told in the third person, it reveals a woman who’s a little afraid of grabbing life by the horns despite the fact she has the courage to emigrate to the US alone with little more than the clothes on her back. Here, in 1950s Manhattan, she has the inner strength and determination to create a new life for herself — she finds an apartment of her own, becomes a nurse and brings up a child — but she remains a quiet and shy person.”

Lost and Found by Brooke Davis
“This is a lovely feel-good novel. It’s quirky and sweet. It’s funny and joyful. It’s tender, poignant and heart-rending. I felt sad when I came to the end of the story, not because the ending was sad (it’s not) but because I had to say goodbye to seven-year-old Millie and her two older chums, octogenarians Agatha Pantha and Karl the Touch Typist.”

The Avenue of the Giants by Marc Dugain  (translated by Howard Curtis)
Avenue of the giants
“This book is loosely based on the life story of California ‘Co-ed Killer’ Edmund Kemper, who was active in the 1970s. It is one of the most astonishing novels I’ve ever read, not the least because it’s so gruesome and shocking in places, but also because it has such a strong and powerful narrative voice. The first 100 pages are especially gripping as you are placed firmly in the head of Al Kenner, a depraved yet highly intelligent killer. His first person narrative is immediate and rational, yet coolly detached, making for a rather chilling reading experience.”

Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch (translated by Sam Garrett)
Summer House with Swimming Pool
Summer House with Swimming Pool  is based on a holiday from hell: there are family arguments, forbidden love affairs and a few cross words between friends. But there’s also a dark undercurrent of menace and misogyny that has deep repercussions for everyone in this sorry saga. When the book opens we know that thespian Ralph Meier is dead and that his doctor, Marc Schlosser, who narrates the story has been accused of his murder through negligence. As Marc prepares to face the Board of Medical Examiners, the story rewinds to explain how events have lead to this dire predicament.”

Us Conductors by Sean Michaels
“Sean Michaels’ debut novel, Us Conductors, is a fictionalised account of the life of Russian engineer and physicist Lev Sergeyevich Termen (1896-1993) — later known as Leon Theremin — who invented the electronic musical instrument that takes his name: the theremin. It’s an intriguing read because it’s so ambitious in scope and theme. It’s a story about music, invention, emigration, science, love, espionage, money, fame, crime and punishment. It’s part New York novel, part prison memoir, part espionage tale, part romance. But, most of all, it’s epic, life-affirming — and fun.”

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
“This novel focuses on what happens to individual members of the Lee family following the death of 16-year-old Lydia, who drowns in the lake behind the family home. Initially, it’s not clear whether her death was an accident, homicide or suicide, but this book is not a crime novel: it’s an exposé on closely-held secrets, family history, parental expectations, sexual equality, identity, racism and grief.”

The Thrill of it All by Joseph O’Connor
“If anything is ripe for satire it is rock journalism and rock biographies. They’re so filled with clichés and stereotypes, how could you not want to send them up? Irish writer Joseph O’Connor does exactly that with this gloriously clever novel, which is the fictionalised memoir of a guitarist from a rock band that made it big in the 1980s. He covers all the clichés — the lousy gigs with just two people in the audience, the struggle to get a record deal, the infighting, the sex, the drugs and so on — but he does it with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek but without ever turning it into farce or mockery. It actually feels like a book with a heart: you care about the people in it.”

Family Life by Akhil Sharma
“In Akhil Sharma’s second novel, Family Life, an immigrant Indian family living in suburban America face a tragic situation: their eldest son Birju, a promising young scholar, survives an accident that leaves him brain damaged, blind and unable to walk or talk. He requires constant care around the clock, but his family never give up hope that he will eventually emerge unscathed from the condition that has so destroyed his life and irrevocably altered theirs. This heartbreaking story is told from the point of view of Birju’s younger brother, Ajay, whose voice is delightfully naive and filled with petty jealousies, hopeless romanticism and a deep and abiding love for the sibling he once admired but now pities and, occasionally, despises. ‘After the accident, I was glad I might become an only child,’ he confesses to God at one point.”

Nora Webster by ColmTóibín
“The book, which is set in Ireland’s County Wexford in the late 1960s and 1970s, is focused on one woman — the Nora Webster of the title — who has recently been widowed. Her husband, a school teacher who played an active role in local politics and was regarded as a pillar of the community, has died of some never-explained-to-the-reader illness and she is left to bring up four children alone: two of them — young adult daughters — no longer live at home, but there are two young boys under the age of 11 whom she treats in a distant but not unkind way.”

The prize shortlist will be published on 12 April 2016, and the winner will be announced on 9 June. To find out more, and to view the longlist in full, please visit the official website.

Have you read any of these books? Or others from the extensive longlist?

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

‘The Temporary Gentleman’ by Sebastian Barry


Fiction – hardcover; Faber and Faber; 288 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Sebastian Barry has mined both sides of his family’s history for his fiction, and his latest novel, The Temporary Gentleman, is no exception. In this case we meet his grandfather, Jack McNulty, a man with an interesting — and dark — story to tell.

An intimate voice

Written in the form of a memoir, the book details Jack’s rather colourful life. It covers his time as a doltish student who meets and falls in love with the beautiful Mai Kirwan in the west of Ireland through to their rather tumultuous (and sad) marriage. He also relays his experiences as a “temporary gentleman” in the British Army during the Second World War to his later career as an engineer and UN observer, mainly in Africa, where he now resides.

Throughout his tale, Jack’s tone of voice is raw and intimate. You get the impression you are the person to whom he wishes to confess all his past sins. But Jack is not all he seems — and the further you get into the book, the more you realise he’s being slightly economical with the truth.

And yet, despite all his flaws, Jack appears to be a likeable man, genuinely perplexed by the trouble and pain in his life, never quite frank or brave enough to properly confront his demons, all of which makes him such a delicious fictional character to follow.

Rhythm of the prose

As ever with a Sebastian Barry novel, the prose in The Temporary Gentleman is distinctive in its lyricism and musicality. There are sentences here which “sing”, and it’s the rhythm of them that makes reading Barry such a joy. You know when something particularly exciting (or dreadful) is about to happen because there’s a sudden absence of full stops — an entire sentence can span two pages, punctuated by well-spaced commas, so that a kind of breathless quality ensues, one that is only matched by the hammering of the reader’s heartbeat.

And my heart did, indeed, hammer quite a lot while reading this book. And I also found myself becoming quietly shocked by Jack’s behaviour and his inability to take real responsibility for his actions.

In fact, the more I read, the more I wanted to hear Mai’s side of the story, and when I met Barry at his book launch in London and asked if he would ever tell her tale he said he already had — in the 1998 theatre production Our Lady of Sligo.

Family connections

Readers who are familiar with Barry’s The Secret Scripture are bound to get a new insight into Rose McNultry from this new novel — Rose is Jack’s sister-in-law and she is mentioned in passing several times during the course of The Temporary Gentleman. Similarly, Eneas McNulty, who stars in Barry’s first novel, The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, is also referenced.

It’s not that you need to have read these books beforehand (I’ve not read the one about Eneas), but they certainly deepen your appreciation for Barry’s skill as a novelist when you notice the connections between family members and their various storylines interleaved across several volumes. It’s an impressive achievement.

If I was to fault anything with the book it is that Jack’s main narrative is regularly interrupted by short interludes describing what he did last night, for instance, or what he plans to do tomorrow. Sometimes these feel a little like a prop (or a crutch), while Barry tries to figure out what to write next. But that’s a truly minor quibble.

On the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Jack McNulty’s company — even if he turned out to be the bad guy or, as the title makes clear, the temporary gentleman in Barry’s family tree.

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

‘On Canaan’s Side’ by Sebastian Barry


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.

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.

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

‘The Secret Scripture’ by Sebastian Barry


Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 320 pages; 2009.

When I read Sebastian Barry’s 2005 Booker shortlisted novel A Long Long Way several summers ago I found it one of the most moving books I’d ever read. There was something about the story of an Irish lad caught between two wars that really resonated with me, and I promptly ordered my father a copy because I knew he’d enjoy the Great War element. Almost three years later I still find myself occasionally thinking about this story, always the sign of a great piece of fiction.

Then, last August, I acquired a copy of Barry’s 2008 Booker shortlisted novel The Secret Scripture. It languished on my bedside table unopened and unread for months, and even its triumph at the Costa Book Awards in January, where it won the Costa Book of the Year Award, didn’t spur me to pick it up. Then, on my recent trip to Ireland, I discovered a copy of it in the holiday cottage I was renting and felt it was no use putting it off any longer: I had to read it to see how it measured against my very high five-star opinion of A Long Long Way.

The Secret Scripture didn’t disappoint. It is a magnificent story about memory and the tricks our minds play on us, and how society has a habit of condemning the innocent to live lives of quiet desperation and unnecessary struggle.

The story is split between two narrators, Roseanne McNulty, possibly the oldest woman in Ireland who has been a patient at Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital since 1957, and Dr William Greene, the senior psychiatrist who is charged with determining which patients can be re-released into the community once the present building is demolished.

Dr Greene, an outsider (in the sense that he’s not Catholic) grieving over the death of his wife, spends a lot of time with Roseanne, whom he describes as “my old friend” and the “oldest person in this place”.

She has been a fixture, and not only represents the institution, but also, in a curious way, my own history, my own life.

During their sessions in which he assesses Roseanne’s suitability for discharge, he finds himself confessing things to her that he would normally keep quiet. Meanwhile, Roseanne gives little of herself away, preferring to make her confessions in a secret diary that she keeps hidden under the floorboards. It is these revealing diary extracts which make up her side of the narrative.

Eventually, over the course of the book, you learn of the joys and horrors of Roseanne’s life and how she came to be incarcerated in the asylum. But because she readily admits that everything she recalls “may not be real”  and that she has “taken refuge in other impossible histories, in dreams, in fantasies” you’re never quite sure if she is a reliable narrator or not. Towards the end of the novel she confesses that her memories and her imaginings are “lying deeply in the same place” and that the process of excavating them is troublesome.

Dr Greene, who is not privy to Roseanne’s written confessional, has his own suspicions about her inconsistent memory, which he puts down to “tangled histories”:

Not only can I not get her story from herself, I have versions of her life that I think she would reject.

Eventually, these two diverse narrative threads, which dance around each other, meld together, culminating in a surprise ending, which is devastating in its impact.

Unfortunately — and this is where I tend to agree with the Costa judges who called it “a flawed novel” — this tightening of loose ends felt too contrived for my liking, too neat, too packaged. It didn’t help that I guessed the ending but had spent the last 50 or so pages convincing myself that I had it wrong, because surely Barry would leave in the ambiguities to allow the reader to come to their own conclusions about what really happened.

Does this matter though? No book is ever perfect and while The Secret Scripture might rely on two major coincidences for its climax to work, it does not detract from the highly emotional story told in such an effortless, beautiful way. And it certainly wouldn’t put me off recommending it to anyone looking for something exquisitely written, intelligent and moving.

If you liked this book, you might also like Salley Vickers’ The Other Side of You which treads similar territory in terms of narrative, content and style.

10 books, Book lists

10 books that are harrowing

10-booksWe’ve all been there. Read a book and wept buckets over it. Or emerged from the story feeling completely shattered, as if the world has slightly tilted on its axis and we’re left standing on shaky ground.

I love reading books that make me think, that take me out of my comfortable existence and leave a lasting impression. Harrowing books, ones that are slightly distressing to read for one reason or another — maybe because the characters do terrible things, lead  distressing lives or are confronted by extraordinarily heartbreaking circumstances — reveal the power of literature to move, transform and educate us in ways we may never have expected when we first cracked open the pages.

Maybe it’s the masochist in me, but I truly love books, whether fiction or non-fiction, that leave me feeling slightly devastated when I get to the last page. As we all know, reading is a deeply personal experience, and sometimes it’s nice to have almost tangible evidence of the journeys we’ve experienced in our mind’s eye.

While I realise not everyone likes a harrowing read, sometimes it’s good to shake things up a bit. If you want some help deciding what might be worth a try, here’s my top 10 harrowing books (arranged in alphabetical order by book title):

‘A Long Long Way’ by Sebastian Barry

There’s nothing like a war novel to take the reader out of their comfort zone and into an almost unimaginable world of death, horror and destruction. A Long, Long Way, shortlisted for the 2005 Booker Prize, is an unbearably sad read about an Irish soldier caught between two wars: the Great War and the Irish War of Independence. I read most of the book with a lump in my throat. But while the scenes on the battlefield are stomach-churningingly gruesome and harrowing, this is a beautifully written book that is also deeply moving.

‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ by Erich Maria Remarque

Like A Long, Long Way, this is another book set during the Great War, but this one is told from a German perspective. The brilliance of this book is that it does not romanticise war in any way. It shows in clear, concise language what trench warfare was really like, and how young, innocent and patriotic young men became transformed by their experiences — and not necessarily for the better. Above all, All Quiet on the Western Front exposes the utter futility and pointlessness of war. I came away from this book feeling completely bereft, distressed by the knowledge that we don’t seem to have learnt a thing. Who says history does not repeat?

‘An Evil Cradling’ by Brian Keenan (not reviewed on blog)

This is the true story of Belfast-born Brian Keenan’s capture by Shi’ite militiamen when he was a teacher in Beirut in the 1980s. He was kept hostage for four-and-a-half years. I read the book not long after publication, back in 1991, and I remember it having a strong, long-lasting impact on me. How one man could survive such brutal treatment for so long without going completely insane was simply beyond my comprehension.

‘Cries Unheard: The Story of Mary Bell’ by Gitta Sereny (not reviewed on blog)

This non-fiction book is probably the most profound true story I have ever read. It changed my entire outlook on child criminals, how they should be treated and who should be held responsible. It looks at the case of Mary Bell, an 11-year-old girl who was convicted of the manslaughter of two young boys (aged 4 and 3) in 1968. Sereny, an amazingly talented journalist who has devoted most of her life to exploring the reasons why people do bad, immoral things, interviews Mary as an adult about her experiences. It is a deeply chilling, life-changing read. In my opinion it should be compulsory reading for every parent, teacher and social worker.

‘Due Preparations for the Plague’ by Janette Turner Hospital

Anyone who has a fear of flying should probably not read this novel by Australian author Janette Turner Hospital. The central focus of the story is the hijack of an Air France plane in which the terrorists keep ten hostages as a negotiating card. It’s a truly electrifying read, one that resulted in the hair on the back of my neck standing on end on more than one occasion. It certainly fed my paranoia for awhile there, and to this day I start to feel on edge whenever any plane I’m in sits on the tarmac longer than it should…

‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ by Lionel Shriver (not reviewed on blog)

Is there anyone out there who hasn’t read this book and not felt absolutely devastated by the end? This one had such a profound effect on me when I read it in 2005 that I wasn’t able to write a review. I just didn’t know how to put into words the deep impact the storyline had had on me. It wasn’t the horrific Columbine-style school massacre that evoked such strong feelings, rather it was the whole nature versus nurture debate and whether career women can, in fact, make good mothers. Reading groups must have a field day with this one!

The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe (not reviewed on blog)

For a long time, I regarded The Butcher Boy as my favourite book. I think this was mainly due to the fact that up until that point (I was about 23) I had never read anything like it: there’s very limited punctuation, little separation between dialogue and thought, and the narrator, Francie Brady, is a young boy who is slightly unhinged and commits murder. I saw the movie and thought it was impressive, but it was nowhere near as harrowing as the book. As much as I admire McCabe, I don’t think he’s ever written anything to surpass the remarkable brilliance and dark, disturbing nature of novel which provides a fascinating insight into the mind of a killer. I still think it should have won the 1992 Booker Prize for which it was shortlisted.

‘The Barracks’ by John McGahern

I have a literary crush on the late John McGahern. This book, his first novel published in 1963, is about a young married Irish woman who discovers she has breast cancer but tries to hide it from those she loves. It is an absolutely heart-breaking read — although punctuated by humour — and it left such an impact I still think about it almost 18 months later. I was so impressed by this one, slim volume I went out and bought McGahern’s entire back catalogue.

‘Tatty’ by Christine Dwyer Hickey

Anyone would think the Irish have a monopoly on rotten childhoods — The Butcher Boy (see above), Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha and MJ Hyland’s Carry Me Down come to mind — but this one  is the first I’ve read from a female perspective. The narrator is a little girl called Tatty, who is caught in the middle of an unravelling marriage between her beloved but reckless father and her depressed, alcoholic mother. Yes, not exactly happy reading. But I loved this book and felt completely bereft when it ended, almost as if Tatty was a real person whom I was desperate to protect…

‘The Endless Steppe’ by Esther Hautzig (not reviewed on blog)

This is a real blast from the past. I read this book when I was 10. My dad brought it for me and I still remember him explaining it was a true story about one girl’s life during the Second World War. It was the true story aspect that got to me. I had recently read Anne Frank, so I guess this was a natural progression, given it’s about 10-year-old Esther Rudomin, who was taken prisoner by the Russians in 1941 with her mother and grandmother. They were shipped by cattle car to a forced-labour camp in Siberia, hence the book’s title. Sounds harrowing for a kid to read, but it taught me a lot about the Holocaust, a subject that has fascinated, enthralled and appalled me ever since.

So, what did you think of my choices? Are there any particular books you’d recommend as a harrowing read?