On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry
Almost as soon as I put down my completed copy of Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side, my hunch that it would be judged widely pleasing was borne out when it was listed alongside 12 others on the annual Man Booker Prize longlist. It is not the first time Barry has been in the running for the Commonwealth’s most prestigious prize for fiction: he was shortlisted in 2005 for A Long Long Way and again three years later for The Secret Scripture.
The multitalented (plays, novels and poetry) Irishman is due, and On Canaan’s Side would be a worthy laureate not least because it handles the complex subject of grief with rare economy, while showing the seismic power of sudden and premature loss.
The protagonist is the elderly Lilly Bere, a Chicagoan who was forced to flee Dublin with her doomed fiancé at the end of the First World War. On Canaan’s Side opens in the immediate aftermath of the suicide of her 20-something grandson, Bill, and proceeds through her experience of grief until its arresting halt 17 days later.
Which is not to say it is all about Bill – in fact the narrative, stark in content yet laden with Barry’s usual lovely wordcraft, evokes a sombre, reflective mood largely through a series of flashbacks that constitute a biography of Lilly’s 89 years. The loss of Bill – her only surviving relative – is one more in a series, and the story of her endurance of it is powerful in its simplicity. There are few who can craft something so remarkable out of the most ordinary, and Barry lets none of the effort that must have been required be perceived.
Lilly’s life has been no pretty picture. She has lost a homeland, a brother and son to war, and a not-quite-husband to civilian bullets. Her son Ed, though alive, is buried in the post-traumatic stress of Vietnam, and his toddler proves Lilly’s saviour as she devotes her later years to raising him. But Bill’s life unfolds as if in mirthless mimicry of his grandmother’s, and by his early 20s he has emerged from his own divorce and a stint in the second Gulf War. It is as if Lilly’s steeliness loses its potency down the generations, with Ed retaining his life if not his sanity, and Bill proving unable to cling to either.
Throughout, Barry’s prose is jaw-dropping, and the beauty of his writing – “those long-limbed creaturely fogs that walk in against the Hamptons like armies, whether attacking or defeated, whether going out or returning home is hard to say” – will surely contribute to his elevation once more to the Booker shortlist. Indeed, war is a prominent theme, both as a literal reference and perhaps a metaphorical allusion to the daily, subconscious practice of guarding against death.
The ending cannot be objectively defined as either happy or sad, but it is entirely natural. The final lesson of On Canaan’s Side may be that one is never too old or world-weary to elude devastation, and that an aged heart, its defenses weakened by life, is perhaps the kind most afflicted by sorrow.
4 / 5 stars: There might well be a Booker in it.
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