Niall MacMonagle, review of On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry, in The Irish Times (30 July 2011)

Details: Niall MacMonagle, review of On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry, in The Irish Times (30 July 2011), Weekend Review, p.10 - available at The Irish Times online - accessed 31.07.2011.

Storytelling is the most natural thing in the world. We see it in the all-hours, everyday, compulsive banalities of Twitter and blogging - but even tweeting proves that stories told and stories heard remain one of our deepest and necessary pleasures.

But storytelling of a different order - compelling, nourishing, sustained storytelling - is the hallmark of Sebastian Barry’s writing for the past two decades. Whether on page or stage, Barry’s work - Hinterland being the exception - is all of a piece. From his family background he inherited what he has termed ‘a tsunami of stories’ and different, interconnected ancestors emerge centre-stage in different works.

In his latest novel, On Canaan’s Side, deservedly longlisted last Tuesday for this year’s Man Booker, Barry has created an intricate but clear narrative voice in Lilly Bere, a character inspired by Barry’s great aunt. In spare, clean prose we meet this singular woman: ‘I am sitting here at my kitchen table, with its red Formica. The kitchen is gleaming. I have made tea.’ And the intricacies are the intricacies of heartbreak, love, loss, race, abandonment, betrayal, what Barry’s narrator calls ‘the heavy-hearted tales of history’, her own, Ireland’s and America’s.

Like Roseanne McNulty in 2008’s The Secret Scripture, Lilly Bere has lived a long time; both women’s stories span a century. But this new novel is set in the New World and begins in the Hamptons in 1992, where Lilly, ‘terrified by grief’, writes, in an old accounts ledger, what she refers to in the closing pages as ‘my confession’.

She’s a reluctant writer - ‘I hate writing’ - but a powerful storyteller, and the death by suicide of her adored grandson Bill, home from the Gulf War, prompts her to face what she calls ‘difficult, dark stuff, stories stuffed away’. Over 17 days, 89-year-old Lilly writes her mourning story. The 17 chapters represent 17 ‘days without Bill’, mirroring, perhaps, the 17 years she spent raising him.

Having fled Ireland in the early 1920s with Tadg Bere, Lilly Dunne and he live as man and wife in Chicago, where the past catches up with them dramatically and violently. Later, in Cleveland, she meets Joe Kinderman. ‘Secretive Joe. Massively beautiful Joe. American Joe.’ It is through charismatic Joe, ‘all spark and tornado’, that Barry explores, as Philip Roth did in The Human Stain, the fear and tension of racial identity and inheritance, and through Lilly’s great friend Cassie Blake racial prejudice is brought into focus. Remembering Joe, Lilly also remembers the excitement and intimacy of married love.

Wicklow and Dublin are vividly evoked in Annie Dunne and A Long Long Way, as they are here, but America - Chicago, Cleveland, Washington, Long Island - offers a new dimension. A Cleveland fun park, the Chicago Art Institute, a dinner party for Dr King are all alive in memory, and though the book’s title captures the promise of what America offered - ‘I knew what safety and haven was America to me’ - for Lilly it becomes a place of heartbreak. She wonders, ‘How could I not understand that something had to be given up for her?’

‘Four killing wars’ determine the plot and two young men, grandson Bill and brother Willie, one named for the other and ‘killed 70 years apart in two different wars’, bookend the narrative, a narrative that flows seamlessly from present to past and returns us again and again to Lilly at her kitchen table.

Her Long Island neighbours Mrs Wolohan, Mr Eugenides, Mr Dillinger and Mr Nolan offer everyday immediacy, but Barry handles memory - its secrets and sorrows - masterfully. ‘We may be immune to typhoid, tetanus, chicken pox, diphtheria, but never memory. There is no inoculation against that.’

And when Barry uses symbolism - a pot of Greek honey, ‘the white heather from my father’s hillside’ or ‘the big spider this year on the lavatory window’ - the effect is both simple and powerful.

Voice is everything. As you move through this story, Lilly’s voice becomes the voice inside the reader’s head, a voice that is private, self-conscious, deliberately rich in imagery. At times the language is quaint and idiomatic, and at times limpid and beautiful, as when Lilly looks on her son Ed when he tells her that he’s been drafted to Vietnam: ‘I was gazing at him. I was seeing I thought something for the first time. His features were regular, square, like a portrait. He stood before me, and I gazed at his face. I think I saw how doubt wavered there, and courage, and of course the blessed ignorance of what was truly to come.’

Love and hatred feature. When Mr Nolan, both friend and enemy, reveals a shocking truth, Lilly’s hatred is as vivid as the tender love she shows for her son Ed, now a Vietnam vet, who returns to Lilly’s porch but will not come in. And the truly observant passages in which Lilly tells of watching her son and grandson grow, ‘the deepest, most important poetry of my life’, are clearly written out of felt experience.

Though Lilly’s mother dies in childbirth, though Lilly’s own first love dies suddenly and subsequent events bring terrible sorrows, On Canaan’s Side is not a bleak book. Its remarkable wisdom and spirited openness save it from that. Clearsightedly, Lilly says: ‘I am dwelling on things I love, even if the measure of tragedy is stitched into everything.’

Desmond MacCarthy, writing about E. M. Forster, differentiated between the masculine and feminine ways of life. The masculine way is ‘to handle it departmentally’ but the ‘feminine impulse ... is to see life as more of a continuum’. Barry’s Lilly Bere brilliantly encapsulates that continuum in a book beautifully and rhythmically woven. Though the similes are overdone, the plot revelations are handled much more effectively here than in The Secret Scripture.

It’s a story about what Mr Eugenides calls ‘[t]he sorrow of countries and our own private souls’, a story that will deepen your understanding of yourself and others. The quietening, closing chapters are among the most moving and beautiful you will read this year - or any other.

This new novel forms, together with A Long Long Way and The Secret Scripture , an impressive triptych celebrating ‘the lost names in the history of the world’. I enjoyed and admired this one best.

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