‘A measure of tragedy is stitched into everything, if you follow the thread long enough.” So says Lilly Bere, the 89-year-old narrator of Sebastian Barry’s fifth novel, and she has reason enough to think so.
On Canaan’s Side
opens with grieving Lilly composing her own story after the suicide of her grandson. She feels “like a landscape engulfed in floodwater in the pitch darkness” and writes, “I carry in my skull a sort of molten sphere instead of a brain, and I am burning there, with horror, and misery.” Barry is not an author one could accuse of understatement.
Lilly is the younger sister of Willie Dunne, the volunteer in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers whose story dominated Barry’s beautiful, devastating third novel, A Long Long Way (2005), about the First World War and the Easter Rising. That is still his best work, notwithstanding the deserved success of his fourth, The Secret Scripture (2008), which, like his latest, explored Ireland’s 20th century via the stations of an old woman’s memory.
The Dunne family story is a remarkable ongoing project for Barry: Lilly’s sister is the titular character of his second novel, Annie Dunne (2002); their father, the subject of his play The Steward of Christendom (1995), is as superintendent of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, “the enemy of the new Ireland”, though cherished in memory by Lilly.
In his new book, Lilly is just a girl when, after the war, she is betrothed to a boy whose membership of the Black and Tans, the Army regiment recruited to suppress revolution in Ireland, leads to a death sentence that they try to escape by fleeing together to America.
Adopting the sentimental, hyperbolic language used in many classic American immigration stories from the period, Lilly sees herself as something of a pilgrim, as “a voyager in love with the place of her voyage”.
But she is an exile, a stranger, and in “the land of refuge” she is always waiting for her assassin to appear from some vast expanse or teeming city street.
Swilling around in this emotional floodwater are momentous events of public history, civil rights and assassinations. Moving in and out of the official history, pulled by the backwash of patriotism (American, Irish and Irish-American) flows the strange, intimate history of one life.
Lilly becomes a fugitive then a down-and-out, changes her name, finds work and love, loses friends and husbands, rears children, moves from New York to Chicago to Cleveland, and finally to the apparently peaceful, foggy shores of the Hamptons, in a story that tantalises to the end. The figure of Willie Dunne haunts the book, as the other boys of Lilly’s life join the unending march of boys to war after war.
Everything is filtered through Lilly. Through her similes, her submerged former life in Ireland resurfaces, as through the images in dreams: her mind is “like an unbroken pony, plunging about”; she writes, “my heart lifted like a pheasant from scrub… its wings utterly opened in fright and exulting”.
Her “confession”, as she calls it, is a catalogue of small moments that catch one unawares: “A man dressing in the morning, in his youth. My husband.”
Barry can hardly stop himself from giving Lilly flights of words that amplify that exultation in memories of people long since swept away into the past. Biblical cadences swell her language, for example when she remembers the heathery hillside of her Irish girlhood, before darkness touched her life: “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.”
Barry’s famed lyricism generates such emotional engagement that to come away dry-eyed from one of his novels would surely be proof of a stony heart. (For the record, this reader cried four times while engrossed in On Canaan’s Side.)
With his extraordinary talent for condensing the tangential sorrows and solaces of a life, Barry continues to unpick the threads of Irish history through what Lilly calls “our own little stories, without importance”. His empathy is his most valuable gift.
About the author: Sebastian Barry is a top five bestseller, his previous works include ‘The Secret Scripture’ and ‘A Long Long Way’. He was named the Costa Book of the Year in 2008 and he was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
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