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Sunday, November 15, 2015

Reviews Archive - "On Canaan's Side" by Sebastian Barry

Sebastian Barry is an Irish writer I have always admired.  Today, from my Reviews Archive, I am featuring one of his novels to which I gave my highest rating.  Sebastian Barry has appeared on the Man Booker lists three time, most recently for this book in 2011.

Review of On Canaan’s Side
5 Stars
The narrator is 89-year-old Lily Bere. Over seventeen days after the death of her grandson, she recounts the major events of her life beginning with her childhood in Ireland and continuing through her adulthood in America.

America does not prove to be Canaan, the Biblical Promised Land. America is not a place of refuge since Lily's life and the lives of her loved ones are dominated by violence. Her story includes many of the historical events of the twentieth century (war, racial tensions). These events are not detailed; the focus is on the damage they leave in their wake. Her presence in the wings of so many momentous events might seem far-fetched, but there is an emotional truth in Lily's narrative.

Lily is a character who will long remain with the reader. Her life story is full of hatred and vengefulness, but it is told by a humble, kind, non-judgmental, and compassionate woman. Her stoicism and indomitable will in the face of multiple bereavements and separations and hardships is remarkable, as is her joy in small pleasures. Lily attributes all of these qualities to Mrs. Wolohan, her long-time employer, not realizing she herself possesses them in abundance.

Obviously, this is a novel of memory and remembrance. Early in her "confession" Lily mentions that "There is no inoculation against [memory]" (83). It is this very remembering that brings her deliverance: "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" (217).

Barry's language is wonderfully poetic. The figurative diction is reminiscent of T. S. Eliot: "The sea sat out on the beach like a thousand patients at a surgery, still, vexed, worrisome" (253) and "the sun was falling away under the table of the world, like a drinking man" (254). The book is worth a re-read just to savour the lyricism.