‘A careful study in optimism’ – On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry

On Canaan’s Side is Sebastian Barry’s follow-up to The Secret Scripture, the book that brought him his second Booker nomination, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Independent Bookseller’s Prize and the Irish Book Awards Best Novel. It’s also his fifth novel, alongside a host of plays and three poetry collections, but it’s only the second of his that I’ve read. Fairly predictably, given the hype, The Secret Scripture was my first Barry, and I think that might be the case with many of the readers of On Canaan’s Side, and, like me, they’re likely to pounce upon the similarities between the two books, though whether these are representative of the author’s entire canon, I’ll leave to more serious Barry fans to decide. On Canaan’s Side takes up the story of the Dunne family, as told in his earlier novels Annie Dunne and A Long, Long, Way; this time it’s the story of Lilly Dunne we hear, from her forced flight from Ireland at the end of the First World War to her new life and old age in America. As the novel opens, Lilly Bere (neé Dunne) is mourning the suicide of her grandson, Bill, and plotting her own death. In the meanwhile she writes this account of her own life – a story of exile, trauma and fear, but woven through with a beautiful, evocative tenderness. It’s pretty epic in scope – Martin Luther King, no less, is a minor character – and it’s features hitmen, murder, war, fake identities and buried secrets. Intrigued yet?

I can’t say how this book compares with the earlier volumes in the Dunne chronicles, but it’s got plenty in common with The Secret Scripture - both books feature an ancient but lucid female protagonist secretly setting pen to paper to tell her life-story, a story characterised by abandonment, misery and exile. The last-ditch memoirist isn’t a device I’m keen on – it’s too convenient, too literary, too polished – but like Roseanne Clear, Lilly Bere is an articulate, poetic narrator with a fascinating story, so it’s something I’m just about willing to overlook. And the story in this case definitely is fascinating – it’s steeped not only in Irish history (the battle for and against independence) but American history, too (civil rights, the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam, both World Wars, the Gulf War), and despite all Lilly goes through – the loss of a brother, two partners, a son, a grandson, two close friends – her writing is suffused with optimism, love and hope, which meant that no matter what fresh misery befell her, I wasn’t exhausted by the onslaught.

The structure’s pretty simple – seventeen chapters narrated by Lilly, each one marking another day since the burial of her grandson, and each one opening with an account of the day in question, leading on to a series of memories that cumulatively build to a detailed portrait of Lilly’s life. It’s not a comforting read. Her fiancé, Tadg, was a Black and Tan with a price on his head; fleeing with him to America, Lilly sees him executed by an Irish gunman in the Art Institute of Chicago before a Van Gogh self-portrait. Her best friend, Cassie, a black servant, is repeatedly raped by her employer before drowning herself. Lilly’s next partner abandons her while she’s pregnant. Her son is so traumatised by his Vietnam experience that he abandons his own son on Lilly’s doorstep. That same son hangs himself after he returns from Kuwait. And all the time, Lilly’s glancing over her shoulder for the shadowy assassin that killed Tadg and must surely be coming for her, too. Again, like The Secret Scripture, there’s a big reveal very close to the end of the book. I’m on the fence with this – I’m not sure it’s necessary and I think it’s a little gimmicky, and though it doesn’t detract from the book and it’s certainly poignant, I’m not sure (unlike The Secret Scripture) that it adds all that much to the story. I’ve put in enough spoilers in this review already, so I’m not going to say any more, but if any of you have read the book, please add a comment below – was this a twist really necessary?

Anyway, despite the horrible events that Lilly lives through, she survives, and On Canaan’a Side is a careful study in optimism. America is Canaan’s side, the land of abundance and a fresh start. Lilly meets countless selfless people (mostly women) who help her, despite the inconvenience to their own lives and despite her shady background. Even though her relationships tend to end badly and are characterised by lies and betrayal, she doesn’t shy away from companionship – from Tadg to Joe to Mr Nolan, she never loses her trust and her faith in others. Cassie’s ill-treatment and Dr King’s assassination are situated in the greater context of growing civil rights. And although Lilly realises, having spent seventy years on the run, that there’s no real escape from history, her own narrative is a means of coming to terms with that history. Even in the last pages, when she’s supposed to die, Barry hints that she’ll carry on, if only to keep her memories alive.

Any Cop? Yes, absolutely. Barry’s prose is delicately poetic and deserves to be read aloud. Don’t rush through it; savour the writing. But be warned – there’s a compendium of misfortune packed in here. Lilly’s tenacious happiness has to battle one catastrophe after another; it’s neither an quick nor a comfortable read. But it is worth the effort, even if you feel drained afterwards – and now I’m going to have to double-back and catch up on the rest of his books to see what happened to the rest of the Dunne family.

Valerie O’Riordan

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