[Eamonn Sweeney is disappointed with Sebastian Barrys latest, Annie Dunne]
The Steward of Christendom, Sebastian Barrys magnificent play about the last days of the former Superintendent of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, was a big success when it premiered at the Royal Court in 1995. No less impressive were his other plays Boss Gradys Boys, Prayers of Sherkin and Our Lady of Sligo. Then there is his last, excellent novel, The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty (1998).
From his own family history, Barry had wrought an exhilarating series of works that were linguistically brilliant, contained haunting characters and fell just on the right side of the line that separates pathos from mawkishness. For breadth and depth of talent, no Irish writer of his generation could rival him, it appeared.
Annie Dunne sees him again mining the seam of his ancestral past. Annie is the daughter of Thomas Dunne, the central character of The Steward of Christendom, but Barry approaches her in a manner which suggests the seam is becoming exhausted. This latest book has the enervated feel of a padded novella.
Waiting for Godot has been described as a play in which nothing happens, twice. Annie Dunne is a novel in which nothing happens many times. The eponymous protagonist is an unmarried woman in her sixties who lives with her similarly solitary cousin Sarah in a Wicklow farmhouse. In the summer of 1959, they are asked to care for their grand-niece and grand-nephew whose parents are going to England to seek work.
Not much else happens. There are copious descriptions of the daily agricultural round, the introduction of a farm labourer, Billy Kerr, who has designs on Sarah, and some hints about possible child sexual abuse. These plotlines are abandoned unresolved, as if Barry couldnt be bothered to do anything more with them. What is most disappointing is that the writers touch with prose seems to have deserted him. I very much hope his next book sees a return to form.