Sunday 22 April 2018

Review: On Canaan's Side by Sebastian Barry

Faber and Faber, €16.99

Emer O'Kelly

Sebastian Barry's previous novel, The Secret Scripture, gave his central character, a 100-year-old woman immured by her family in a mental hospital for most of her life, a kind of unlikely apotheosis.

Roseanne McNulty received her immortality in the compassionate uneasiness which made her son trace her lineage only to find it was his own: there was a footprint in the sand.

There is no such salvation for Lily Bere, the heroine of On Canaan's Side, just announced as being on the long list for this year's Man Booker Prize. (Its predecessor was short listed.) The title is taken from an American spiritual, crossing Jordan to find "gladness" on Canaan's side, leaving "Egypt behind". Barry has based Lily on a great aunt of his, forced to leave Ireland in the bitter Twenties to escape political vengeance in the dark days of the War of Independence, and its succeeding, even more bitter, Civil War.

It was the fate of many of those seen by the new order as traitors to the Free State. Until recently, received wisdom acknowledged only the Protestant "landlord class" as having been forced out (and that without any remorse by official Ireland). In more enlightened places and times they would have been called the "educated middle class". JM Synge, for instance, lived on unearned income from his family's estate rents in Wicklow, many of the rents collected on their behalf by their agent, Michael Collins. "Landlordism" was conveniently defined by your politics.

But others, like Lily Bere in On Canaan's Side, the lower middle-class daughter of a senior Dublin Metropolitan policeman, walking out with a Dublin lad home from the war who got work in the only trade he knew and donned the uniform of the Black and Tans, also left in well-founded fear for their lives.

Persistently and consistently mining that small arena of family history of Catholic loyalism, Barry has painted Ireland's ungenerous tragedy, and never more heartbreakingly than in this tale of the illusory nature of "gladness".

Lily Bere is daughter of Thomas Dunn, the protagonist in "The Steward of Christendom", sister of Annie Dunn and little Willie Dunn, who died among the remains of the poppies in A Long Long Way.

She is perhaps the most hopelessly tragic of the family because Barry chooses oblivion for her: we meet her on what for many people is the sad "first day of the rest of her life", as in her late 80s she sets down her own history in a fierce memorial for her son and grandson, and for the others, all men, who have motivated her long life. Lily believes that her life is at an emotional close, not just because of her age, but because all hope has been taken from her in the persons of all those she has loved and cared for. Her tragedy has come through a now-empty full circle.

A retired cook living in a grace-and-favour bungalow in the Hamptons, her community is a small one: her old employer, the local shopkeeper, a few pensioner neighbours. And memory. Memory of Tadg, the boy she left Ireland with, dead in Chicago in terrible hate-filled haunted circumstances. Memory of Joe Kinderman, the Cleveland policeman with the strange ritual of ashy chemicals rubbed into his skin after he shaved in the mornings; Joe Kinderman who abandoned her when she became pregnant, even though she was his legal wife.

Memory of Ed, the son of that aborted marriage, her pride and joy, her beloved, brought home to her only in her heart. Damaged in body and soul in the Vietnam War, Ed can no longer "settle" in the conventional world and is lost to her. Memory of Ed's son Bill, the beautiful, joyous boy whose rearing he bequeathed to his mother.

And now, as Lily counts off the days of her mourning, Bill too is dead, hanged in despair on return from a tour of duty in the Iraq War. War, personal and global, has robbed Lily of everything, leaving her with only a "Himalaya of grief".

Barry winds a "Himalaya of beauty" around the tale, an artfulness of language that is as intense as it is languorous in Lily's exhausted mind as she summons up the emotional energy to leave her testament, a testament of a life lived for and through other people who have left her generous heart barren in her final days.

The novel is an elegy, not just for the dead victims of America's self-styled and self-imposed "policing" of the world, but also an elegy for Ireland's ability to tear itself apart across the generations. In Barry's world, our stoicism translates into an unyielding capacity for the unforgiving vengeance of "political principle". It is not an exaggeration to say that it is a sobering howl from the depths of our own self-created hell. Lily Bere is its personification, a storm-defying stalwart finally defeated by it all. Lily will become dust, her story just another statistic in the hordes of those who took refuge in the land of the free, only to find that Canaan's gladness is as deceptive as Egypt's. There is no escape from ourselves, deny bitterness though we may through 70 years of loving life as does Lily Bere.

Sunday Indo Living

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment