Literary Corner Cafe

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Book Review - Booker Nominees - On Canaan's Side by Sebastian Barry

I know a lot of people who weren’t familiar with Sebastian Barry’s work until the publication of the Booker shortlisted The Secret Scripture. Barry, however, has been around for quite some time. He’s written five novels now, a host of plays, and three poetry collections, and he’s collected several awards for his writing including the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Independent Bookseller’s Prize, and the Irish Book Awards Prize for “Best Novel.” Those of us who’re familiar with his work know that Barry writes primarily about two families – the McNultys and the Dunnes. The Secret Scripture, the book that immediately preceded this one, revolved around Roseanne McNulty Clear as she neared her one hundredth birthday. On Canaan’s Side, however, which was longlisted for the Booker, revolves around a member of the Dunne family. The Dunnes, first heard from in what is probably Barry’s most loved play and the cornerstone of his work, “The Steward of Christendom” are a family of Irish loyalists whose only sin is being on the losing side of the Troubles of 1916-22. “The Steward of Christendom” explores the life of Thomas Dunne, a “Castle Catholic,” and the chief superintendent of the Dublin Metropolitan Police under the British. A widower, Thomas raised one son, Willie, whose story is told in Barry’s first Booker shortlisted novel, A Long, Long Way, and three daughters, Annie, Maud, and Lilly. Annie’s story is told in the beautiful Annie Dunne, and it’s Lilly whose story is told in On Canaan’s Side.

As the book opens, eighty-nine-year-old Lilly Dunne Bere is mourning the suicide of her grandson, Bill, who she raised from the age of two, and, as she now finds herself unable to face life without him, she’s writing her memoirs in preparation for her own suicide. She lets us know immediately that she’s come undone with grief:

Grief: The feeling of it is like a landscape engulfed in floodwater in the pitch darkness, and everything, hearth and byre, animal and human, terrified and threatened. It is as if someone, some great agency, some CIA of the heavens, knew well the little mechanism that I am, and how it is wrapped and fixed, and has the booklet or manual to undo me, and cog by cog and wire by wire is doing so, with no intention ever to put me back together again....

On Canaan’s Side is going to be compared with Barry’s previous book, The Secret Scripture simply because both books feature an elderly protagonist who’s intent on setting down the story of her life. In actuality, other than the above, I didn’t find the books at all alike. Reading On Canaan’s Side was a very different experience for me than reading The Secret Scripture, though I loved both books. And Roseanne McNulty Clear, the protagonist of The Secret Scripture is a very different woman than Lilly Dunne Bere. I’m not usually a fan of the memoirist who’s setting everything down for posterity, but Sebastian Barry is one of the few authors writing today – or any time, really – who can make anything work, and make it work beautifully.

The structure of the book is a simple one. It’s divided into seventeen chapters, each chapter narrated by Lilly in more or less linear fashion, and each one marking one more day since Lilly buried her grandson, Bill. The chapters are simply titled – “First Day Without Bill,’ “Second Day Without Bill,” etc., until we reach “Seventeenth Day Without Bill.”

Like Roseanne in The Secret Scripture, Lilly is an intelligent, articulate, sensitive, and poetic narrator, who has a fascinating story to tell, though she seems a bit more emotional than Roseanne Clear. A woman who came of age in Wicklow, Ireland during the Troubles that began with the Easter Rising in 1916, Lilly’s fiancé was Tadg Bere, a man who’d known Willie Dunne in Belgium, and who served in the “Black and Tans” after his return home. When Lilly’s father learns there’s a price on Tadg’s head – and by extension, Lilly’s – he arranges for the pair to flee Ireland forever and hopefully, make a new life in the relative safety of the United States, on Canaan’s side.

Although Tadg and Lilly have plans in the US, life, as most of us know, rarely conforms to the decisions we’ve made for it. As Lilly and her story move from Chicago to Cleveland to Long Island, Barry makes it clear that Lilly – that none of us, really – can flee from the consequences and repercussions of our history, or from our memories.

Although Lilly comes from a background steeped in Irish history, it’s American history (both World Wars, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the civil rights movement, the political assassinations of the 60s) that forms the backdrop of this book, though the book, itself, is intimate and personal and Barry’s touch is light when writing about politics.

Having lost almost every man she ever cared about to war, Lilly becomes a symbol of the devastating effects of war on those who are left behind. To Barry’s credit, his strong anti-war message doesn’t feel like a message at all. There’s nothing didactic about this book. Barry is far too empathetic for that. So skillful is Barry in the creation of his characters, and so honest and heartfelt is Lilly’s raw grief that the reader is immediately pulled into her story. And Lilly grieves not only for those she’s lost, but for all those who have been lost, and all those who have suffered losses:

Greece, America, Arabia, Ireland. Home places. Nowhere on earth is not a home place. The calf returns to where it got the milk. Nowhere is a foreign place. It is home for someone, and therefore us all.

Sebastian Barry, of course, began his career as a poet, and part of this wondrous book’s power lies in the power of Barry’s language. His lyrical prose is filled with hypnotic rhythms, perfect details, and vivid images. He knows exactly what to write to evoke the emotional reaction in the reader he wants:

But there was something tugging, tugging at me now, Lilly says at one point, some intimation, like a drop of lemon in a jug of milk, to sour it for the soda bread.

This concentration on just the right detail ensures that On Canaan’s Side will be an intense and immersive read, and one in which the most brutal events of the book will be diffused somewhat by a dreadful and beautiful strangeness. Barry, himself, has defended his intense poeticism: "If you listen carefully for how people are talking to you in Ireland, in certain districts, it is quite elaborate, there is a strangeness to it."

This is, without a doubt, the most beautifully written novel I’ve ever read, and for all its poetry and lyricism, to its enormous credit, I never found it overwritten. In attempting to convey the depth of her grief at her grandson’s death, Lilly writes:

What is the sound of an eighty-nine-year-old heart breaking? It might not be much more than silence, and certainly a small slight sound.

Lilly’s voice, in Barry’s sure hand, is a radiant Irish voice. This is Lilly as she begins to describe her small house in Cleveland, Ohio, where she lived in the 1930s:

Our little house had a view of the lake, just. You had to crane your neck, and all you saw were factories and jetties, but it was there, the water. The lake had its own aroma, from a hundred ingredients, mixed by the god of that lake. There was great soothing in that smell.

And, when remembering the heathery white hills of her Irish girlhood, Lilly, herself, becomes caught up in Barry’s intense lyricism, his poetic cadences:

I am writing it, I am writing it, and I spill it all out on my lap like very money, like riches, beyond the dreams of avarice.

At one point, Lilly says her heart …lifted like a pheasant from scrub…its wings utterly opened in fright and exulting. And, when describing the whole of her life, she writes: My years have no width or length, have no dimension at all, just the downturn of a bird’s wings. So quick.

Lilly’s story is, primarily, a story of exile, suffering, and horror, though it’s shot through with glittering strands of beauty, wonder, and tenderness that tug at the reader’s heart. Sometimes, there are even brief glimmers of happiness. I’m thinking, in particular, of a five-hundred-word sentence that recreates the uphill climb and the downhill rush of a rollercoaster at Luna Park on which Lilly rides with her friend, Cassie Blake and a Cleveland police officer, Joe Kinderman, and also describes how Lilly feels about her friends. I heard Sebastian Barry, himself, read this section, and the power of his words is nothing short of tremendous, making it impossible for any reader with an open heart to come away from this book dry-eyed.

For the most part, I’ve avoided a plot summary. It would only be fair to let Lilly – and Barry – tell you the details of Lilly’s life. On Canaan’s Side is not a comforting read, and it’s not sentimental. In fact, Barry eschews sentimentality. There are, he says, some Irish, and even more Irish Americans, who cherish a sentimental view of Ireland, one that really has little to do with Ireland’s history, especially the bloodshed of the twentieth century.

If you’ve read many reviews of this book, you’ve no doubt read about a plot twist near the book’s end. It’s surprising – not shocking, but surprising – and I think it’s entirely credible. I felt the book was enhanced by its inclusion, and I’m glad Barry decided to make use of it.

Most wrongs are never righted. The so-called “sins of the father” continue to reverberate down the ages and visit tragedies on the sons. Sebastian Barry’s vision, as I’ve interpreted it, is to expose those unrighted wrongs, and with the healing balm of language begin to bring light into the darkness. He searches out memories, memories in which “a measure of tragedy is stitched into everything if you follow the thread long through.” And don’t we all have threads of that sort woven into the fabric of our lives?

I don’t believe anyone who reads this book will soon forget Lilly Dunne Bere or the events that made up her extraordinary life. This book affected me like no other ever has. If you love literature, and if you love what literature can do, you need to read this book.


Recommended: Without reservation. This is undoubtedly the most beautifully written book I’ve ever read. However, lest I’ve dwelt on the book’s language too long, let me assure you that the story of Lilly Dunne Bere is a compelling one. Barry does not, in any of his books, sacrifice story for poetry.

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