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.
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”.
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.