On Canaan’s Side. By Sebastian Barry (Faber & Faber)

by John Boland

Irish Independent, July 23, 2011

Reviewing The Secret Scripture in 2008, I described Sebastian Barry as “an unrivalled chronicler of lost lives”, and his new novel also concerns people who, disregarded by society, have never been registered in the elitist ledgers of official history.

As with its predecessor, the central character is a woman whose life coincides with most of the twentieth century, though here the geographical scope is wider, the main action taking place in the United States, the 19-year-old Lilly having fled there with her lover, Tadg, whose Black and Tan activities have made him a marked man at home – and in America, too, as the couple learn to their cost.

There are echoes here of Henry Smart’s stateside experiences in Roddy Doyle’s overambitious and uneasy trilogy, The Last Roundup, and also of those endured by young emigrant Eilis in Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn, though Lilly is a more enterprising figure than Toibin’s heroine, who was so passive that you sometimes felt like giving her a good shaking.

Although exquisitely written and psychologically persuasive, there was a determinism to Toibin’s novel – as if the author had ordained Eilis’s fate from the outset – that Barry deftly avoids, even though you’re alerted from the outset, as the 89-year-old Lilly begins to look back on her long life, that heartbreak is going to be one of its recurring, indeed defining, characteristics.

But her first-person narration promises an openendedness that’s largely fulfilled – Lilly’s innate optimism, curiosity and friendliness are so companionable as to have the reader constantly hoping that what she next relates will somehow turn out to be less catastrophic than what’s gone before.

Indeed, she’s such an engaging confidante that you have to keep reminding yourself how badly she’s been faring with the men in her life: a brother killed in the Great War, a lover assassinated in a Chicago art gallery, a husband who vanishes, a son traumatised by his Vietnam experiences – and that’s before you learn the fate of her grandson, who goes off to fight in the first Gulf War, though you know from the very start that it’s not going to be good: the opening chapter is titled ‘First Day without Bill’, the next ‘Second Day without Bill’ and so on until the final ‘Seventeenth Day without Bill.’

Indeed, such are the calamities that befall the various males throughout the book that an unkind reader might feel Lilly should have been compelled to go through life bearing a placard warning men not to get too close to her if they wished to remain either sentient or sane.

In the hands of another novelist, all of this could have made for a very bleak chronicle, but Barry isn’t that kind of writer. He’s too kindly to be cruel, too forgiving to be despairing, too in love with life’s inconsequentiality not to cherish all those little moments that are made more beautiful by the aching acknowledgment of how transient they are.

Thus, Mrs Wolohan, who has employed Lilly as a cook in the Hamptons and who has looked after her in later life, is commended not just for her courage and her faith in coping with “vast vicissitudes” but also for “her enjoyment of all the minute pleasures of being alive.” And Lilly herself recalls “the pleasure in something cooked right…the saving grace of a Hollandaise sauce that has escaped all the possibilities of culinary disaster and is being spread like a yellow prayer on a plump cod steak.”

And so, although Lily might rue that “there is no inoculation” against memory, yet it is memory’s capacity to reincarnate people and situations that she also celebrates. As she says herself: “There is nothing called long-ago after all. When things are summoned up, it is all present time, pure and simple. So that, much to my surprise, people I have loved are allowed to live again.”

And memory has other salutary aspects, too, as she recognises: “To remember sometimes is a great sorrow, but when the remembering has been done, there comes afterwards a very curious peacefulness. Because you have planted your flag on the summit of the sorrow. You have climbed it.”

If the prose in that passage smacks of the therapy-uplift shelves, it’s a rare lapse – the writing throughout is as limpid and pleasingly modulated as you’d expect from this most sensitive and meticulous of novelists.

Some of the subsidiary characters, though, are sketchily drawn, and it’s hard not to feel that it’s just Lilly who really interests the author. I wondered especially about the occasionally mentioned presence of her old Hamptons friend, the drink-troubled part-time gardener, Mr Nolan. For most of the book he registers as an almost irrelevant figure, solictitous about Lilly’s welfare but so peripheral to her life – and nowhere to be found in the remembrances that occupy most of the novel – that I wondered at his inclusion.

Then his centrality to her story is revealed both to her and to the reader but so late in the action as to seem almost a tacked-on afterthought – just as the crucial revelation towards the end of The Secret Scripture registered as a plot twist too long delayed to be properly satisfying, or even entirely convincing. Indeed, in both books you have the sense of a writer in search of an ending, not finding one and resorting instead to dramatic disclosures that seem imported into the narrative rather than being inevitable outcomes of all that’s gone before.

However, that shouldn’t deter anyone from reading yet another arresting novel by one of our

finest writers.

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