On Canaan's side

Sebastian Barry, 1955-

Book - 2011

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FICTION/Barry, Sebastian
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New York : Viking 2011.
Main Author
Sebastian Barry, 1955- (-)
Physical Description
256 p. ; 22 cm
Contents unavailable.
Review by New York Times Review

Sebastian Barry's 89-year-old heroine revisits her past. SO many people have emigrated from Ireland over the centuries that the diaspora far outnumbers those in the home country. The old joke goes that if all Irish returned, the island would sink under their weight Most departed to seek jobs. Others, like the narrator of "On Canaan's Side," Sebastian Barry's new novel, were chased out with I.R.A. henchmen in hot pursuit. As the book opens, 89-year-old Lilly Bere sits at her Formica kitchen table with only her scalded teapot for company. Stricken by the suicide of her grandson, she tries to manage her grief by writing an account of her life in a daybook. These entries add up to a novel with so many twists and killings and cases of mistaken identity that were it not for Lilly's musical language it might be mistaken for a thriller. How did such a mild-mannered lady, then a teenager, come to be hounded out of Ireland? Her family was on the wrong side of history, Lilly records, and dangerously so. During the First World War, as Ireland swelled with rebels, it was not a good time to be a policeman in British employ as Lilly's father was. Worse, she was engaged to marry one of the 210,000 Irish men who fought the war in British khaki and came home to disgust and cries of "traitor." This soldier, Tadg Bere, was unmoved by the idea of freedom. "He did not believe in any new Ireland," she recalls. "He devoutly loved the old one." (This is not the first time Barry has written of loyalists; his novels "A Long Long Way" and "Annie Dunne" feature Lilly's father and brother.) Aided by Lilly's father, Tadg found employment with the most hated force in Irish history. "They barely had uniforms, and in the beginning wore bits and bobs of various forces, half army and half police, which is why they were dubbed the Black and Tans." Before long there was a price on his head, and the young couple fled to America. Lilly draws a veil over the crimes of that time, rather lamely concluding, "Perhaps in that moment, as Ireland stirred like a great creature in the sea, and altered her position, we should all have been taken out and shot, as a sort of kindness, a neatness." Throughout her years in Chicago, Cleveland, Washington and New York, Lilly longs for the smell of heather, but never returns to Ireland. The novel reads less like journal entries than like a monologue told in the melodic accent of Lilly's youth. She makes for sensitive and entertaining if occasionally exasperating company. Tactful and ever-neutral, she seems allergic to judgment and explains away even the most wild trespasses against her. Lilly reserves her most fervent regard for her employer, Mrs. Wolohan, head of a rich Irish-American family that bears a winking resemblance to the Kennedys. "It's a fact that once upon a time one of the richest women in America was also one of the nicest," she writes, without irony. Mrs. Wolohan shares Lilly's main sorrow, a series of sons and brothers and husbands "milled" into war and assassinations. Other writers of Barry's generation, like Colm Toibin and Colum McCann, have described that distinctive Irish tradition of leaving Ireland. But Barry's immigrant novel feels more old-fashioned, more sepia-toned with its high seriousness, its frank antiwar message, and its sense that a story properly begins with childhood, contains all the events of life and ends with death. The beauty of this novel is that for all its murders and scents of Irish heather, it is not overwritten. Absorbing the final blow of her grandson's death, Lilly asks herself: "What is the sound of an 89-year-old heart breaking? It might not be much more than silence, and certainly a small slight sound." Rachel Nolan is on the staff of The Times Magazine.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [October 2, 2011]
Review by Booklist Review

Twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Barry delivers another intimate take on the consequences of violence, this time moving beyond Ireland's troubles to touch on many of the twentieth century's low points. In tripping, liquid prose that adroitly evokes everything from the smell of an Irish countryside to the heaviness of grief, Barry's narrator, Lilly, looks back on her life with hard-earned wisdom. Spanning more than 80 years, her life has been shattered time and again by conflicts that rob her of loved ones and any sense of security. Early on, an IRA death threat sent her fleeing to America, but things were no simpler there. Closely affected by one seminal event after another (her eventual employer just happened to be a Kennedy-type figure), her life seems sometimes too fraught, too historically entangled, though it is, after all, terribly plausible. And although a measure of tragedy is stitched into everything, at its center it is really a story of the profound if not permanent bonds of friendship and love that underpin a tumultuous existence.--Kinney, Meg Copyright 2010 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Lilly Bere is an 89-year-old retired cook living in the Hamptons in Long Island in Irish writer Barry's latest novel (after The Secret Scripture). Lilly is mourning her grandson, a veteran of the first Gulf War, who has just committed suicide. But this is hardly the first loss she's had in a life spanning continents and many other wars. Born and raised in Ireland, Lilly's first encounter with loss comes when her brother Willie is killed in WWI. A fellow soldier, Tadg Bere, comes to pay his respects to the family and woos her in earnest soon after. The young couple has no time to marry, as Tadg, enrolled in the Black and Tans, an auxiliary police force, is implicated in an ambush of IRA militia men and a price is put on both their heads. They flee to America under assumed names, hoping to start a new life there in safety with the help of some extended family in Chicago, but the past catches up with them. Over the subsequent decades, Lilly is tossed around her adopted country, grappling with the distance from her homeland. She's fascinated by the expansiveness and vigor of America despite her unceasing heartache over the generations of men and their war service. Barry's skills are evident as he tenderly unspools Lilly's story, with a fine eye for intimate moments, but the final impression of her life against its historical backdrop is clouded by the familiarity of many of the novel's elements and the schematic way each additional emotional blow falls relentlessly, tugging at the reader's heartstrings with diminishing force. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

The follow-up to Barry's extraordinary The Secret Scripture, this novel is the lyrical first-person account of Lilly Bere's extraordinary life. A Wicklow girl prodded through life by a series of tragedies, Lilly relates her story at the end of her days from the relative comfort of a seaside cottage in the Hamptons. Her many escapes from harm and even death are counterbalanced by the almost epic grandeur of the love she has shared throughout her existence. Barry suggests that even the perpetual grind of violence and war cannot unsettle Lilly's love, though the tragic passing of her beloved grandson, Bill, upends her equilibrium. Verdict Barry's prose is characteristically musical throughout and sometimes seems at odds with the dissonant events and discoveries that subtly drone throughout Lilly's story. Still, this novel masterfully treats great human subjects, identity, love, war, and death among them. Barry brilliantly conveys how Lilly endures because of her love for others and how inevitable her own end must be when those she loves have passed away. Readers of Roddy Doyle's The Last Roundup trilogy will savor On Canaan's Side. [See Prepub Alert, 3/23/11.]-John G. Matthews, Washington State Univ. Libs., Pullman (c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

A masterful novel filled with the bittersweet ruminations of an 89-year-old woman as she reflects on her rich life while contemplating death.The latest from the award-winning Irish novelist(The Secret Scripture,2008, etc.) and playwright takes the form of a first-person narrative by Lilly Bere, who has lived most of her life in America since emigrating from Ireland in the wake of World War I, after she and her fianc were targeted by the IRA. Lilly largely recounts her life through the men who have defined it: the father who raised her, the fianc whom she followed into exile, the mysterious American husband who wooed her after her fianc's murder, the son who became a walking casualty of war, the grandson she mourns over the 17 days that provide the novel with its structure, the present from which her memory takes flight.Surprises abound, as the novel proceeds from the intimacy of a bereaved woman's recollections to a meditation on life, death, identity and America that achieves an epic scope and philosophical depth. It also sustains a page-turning momentum, leaving the reader in suspense until the very end whether this novel is an extended suicide note, a confession or an affirmation of life's blessings and embrace of its contradictions, as those various strains show the possibility of becoming one. As Lilly writes, "I am dwelling on things I love, even if a measure of tragedy is stitched into everything, if you follow the thread long enough." She finds her experience and identity profoundly shaped by America, a prism that puts her native Ireland in fresh perspective:"People love Ireland because they can never know it, like a partner in a successful marriage." Through her extended contemplation of "the gift of life, oftentimes so difficult to accept, the horse whose teeth we are often so inclined to inspect," Lilly reveals herself to be a woman of uncommon sense and boundless compassion.A novel to be savored.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.