On Canaan’s Side, by Sebastian Barry

Purchased from AbeBooks.com

(Blogger Note: I’ve advanced the posting of this review — many more people have read this book than Rogers, it is a serious Booker contender and, heck, the review is already written. Let the comment dispute begin — I suspect we will have some thoughtful and challenging disagreement on this one.)

If there was ever an author whose reputation and considerable skill stands in the way of my critical assessment, Sebastian Barry is he. As someone who has an affinity for Irish novels (see my raving about the work of John McGahern here), there is no doubt that Barry, along with compatriot Colm Toibin (and, yes, many others — those Irish can write, I must say), deserves to be considered with the best of the current generation. And, yet, each time I pick up his latest work, as is the case with On Canaan’s Side, the promise of the first two-thirds of the novel is not delivered in the conclusion. It is a tribute to Barry that that still makes the book “good to very good”; it is a criticism that “excellence” has been missed.

On Canaan’s Side is another “testament” novel, by my count the fourth on this year’s Booker longlist — Julian Barnes, A.D. Miller and Jane Rogers complete the list of novels framed as first-person memoirs by the central character. It is only right to note that Barry employed a similar approach in his last novel, The Secret Scripture, which was widely tipped to win the 2009 Booker and fell short to The White Tiger, apparently much to Barry’s dismay.

So let’s cut right to the chase — the first half of On Canaan’s Side is as good as the first half of any other novel that I have read this year except for Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. Lilly Bere, the diarist of the novel, is 89 and we know early on that she has decided to end her life when this diary project is done — the book consists of notes arranged as chapters that she composes during her last 18 days. The suicide of her grandson Bill, who has just returned from the first Iraqi War, has provided the immediate impetus, but there are many other elements which have fertilized her decision.

Lilly’s family, the Dunnes, has featured in Barry’s fiction before — they were on the “wrong” (read British) side of the Irish war of independence. Her father was chief superintendent of the Dublin Metropolitan Police when the latest independence troubles started; her deceased brother, Willie, fought for the British in the Great War and died in Picardy. He was Lilly’s favorite and she never quite recovers from that loss. Lilly doesn’t understand or endorse these politics but she has to live with the consequences.

Alas, for Lilly, there is an even bigger dislocation looming when she strikes up with Tadg Bere. He is a returned solider and like many has taken employment with the Black and Tans, on the British side, since no other paying work is available. His presence at an incident where the Tans kill a number of IRA attackers has led to a death warrant on not just Tadg, but Lilly.

You may have noticed that there has not been a quote in this review so far. And there will not be one in the remainder. In terms of prose style, Sebastian Barry (four novels, seven plays, four books of poetry) is as good as the modern English writing world gets — head off to the bookstore and open any Barry volume (including this one) at any page and you will see how good writing can be. There is no need for me to repeat it here.

Still, that considerable skill alone is not enough to carry off an outstanding novel and I don’t think Barry succeeds with this one (but he does come close), just as I don’t think he succeeded with The Secret Scripture a few years back. As good as he is at writing, he doesn’t do plot in either of these books. And the problem is that as the plot disintegrates, the writing becomes twee instead of impressive — the book’s greatest strength effectively becomes an annoying weakness.

Lilly’s journal starts about 70 years back from when she is writing it, comfortably ensconced in a cottage on the Hamptons which is about as close to “really rich” America as you can get. The last decades of her career were spent as a cook for a wealthy American family; the daughter and current dowager, Mrs Wolohan, three decades younger than Lilly, has effectively adopted her. Lilly’s mind is not just parked in the past, however, it is also distracted by the present, in the form of Bill’s suicide in the lavatory of the local school, the implications of the death of Mr Nolan (the Wolohan’s gardener), but perhaps most of all, her present tense need to look at her own history, now that she has decided it is time to end her life.

Many decades ago after that Black and Tan incident, when the IRA put out that death warrant on both Tadg and Lilly, her father’s contacts made it known to him and the couple were able to escape on a boat to New York where there was a cousin. Alas, that cousin wasn’t found and the two (living under aliases) made their way to Chicago where another sort-of cousin lived. They were planning to be married and after their first, glorious sexual episode (delayed many months because these two are quite religious) they head off to the Art Institute for an afternoon outing.

The Chicago Art Institute Van Gogh self-portrait

Tadg is admiring one of Van Gogh’s self-portraits when Lilly becomes aware of a shadowy figure approaching. She tries to alert her lover but he is entranced by the Van Gogh — the stranger (obviously IRA) murders him, Lilly bolts and starts a new life as a refuge.

Barry manages to hold all this together (actually, he does it exceptionally well) for the first half of the book. The language is marvelous, Lilly is a real character, the history (at least as viewed through her eyes) makes sense. When I put it down at that point, I was most impressed and even more interested in where the author would take this book.

Unfortunately from then on, everything in this novel went downhill — yes, it was still more than worthwhile to read but its “masterpiece” caliber shrank from page to page. I’ll supply only hints of my disappointment. Having Dr. Martin Luther King show up as the only black at an outdoor dinner party on the property of one of America’s richest families on Long Island just days before he will be assassinated is just too much of a stretch — it is not just an anachronism, it is the fiction version of extreme bad form. If we are to believe in the fates of Lilly’s son and grandson (“they went to war and came back irreparably damaged” is simply not good enough), more attention needs to be paid to them — had this novel been written in the third person, not the first, that would have been possible. And the background of Mr Nolan is so thoroughly presaged that its eventual dramatic revelation is almost an afterthought — and it comes so late in the book it doesn’t really matter.

Don’t take this the wrong way — Sebastian Barry has again produced a novel that showcases his substantial writing skills and, for those who are willing to overlook his plot issues, it is a substantial achievement. On Canaan’s Side is a highly readable book and, even with its problems, it is worth the trouble — certainly better than most on this year’s Booker longlist.

The problem is that this novel, much like The Secret Scripture, offers the potential of being great — but it is not. Barry is such an excellent writer that I believe he will achieve it eventually. I guess we just have to wait another five years until the next effort appears.

(Digression: Two things should be noted about this novel. The first is that Barry’s dramatic skills apparently don’t just extend to writing plays — he is doing the round of literary festivals and all reports say that his presentation of this novel is exceptional. And I am sure having “heard” it would affect a reader’s impression. Second, apparently the incident in the art gallery is a reflection of Barry family history — hardly a big deal for the novel, but relevant for those who are interested in that kind of authorial history. Both of these angles are reported in Lizzy Siddal’s report on Barry’s appearance at the Edinburgh book festival here. Thanks from afar, Lizzy.)

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31 Responses to “On Canaan’s Side, by Sebastian Barry”

  1. kimbofo Says:

    As you know, I’ve read this one but not yet reviewed it. I wanted to mull it over a bit before I put my thoughts down. I agree with your misgivings about the novel. As much as I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and found myself crying in places, raging in others and having a little chuckle every now and then, it’s by no means perfect. I, too, wondered about the MLK reference, but this interview, on the Faber & Faber site, might partly explain why he felt it necessary to include the man in this novel

    http://www.faber.co.uk/article/2011/7/sebastian-barry-interview-canaans-side/

    “I was reading somewhere about the day Dr Martin Luther King was killed. It mentioned a remark by one of the appalled newsreaders, that the tragedy was compounded by the fact that he was killed ‘on Canaan’s side’, that is to say, in a country of refuge and safety.”

    I saw him do a reading at Foyles a few weeks ago — and he is a superb entertainer, doing the accents, whispering one moment, yelling with delight the next. (He read the bit where Lilly goes on the roller coaster.) He really knows how to capture an audience’s attention. You could have heard a pin drop — everyone was so enamoured of his performance.

    Finally, I read “Annie Dunne” his debut novel earlier this year — Annie, of course, being Lilly’s older sister — and it is a profoundly moving story. He discussed this book at the reading, too, and the hairs stood up on the back of my neck when he confessed that the little boy in the story was actually himself. His aunt Annie looked after him and his sister for a period when his parents were unable to do so…

    [Apologies for overly long comment, but Barry is a favourite of mine!]

  2. RickP Says:

    I enjoyed this slightly more than you. I agree that it is very good instead of great.

    I love Barry’s prose. I am divided on the use of the surprising twist. I don’t think he’s very good at that and should let his writing and story quality shine.

    I do like the surprising but foreshadowed twists in John Irving’s best work but again Barry is not as skilled as Irving in this area.

    Despite mye criticism, this will easily be a personal shortlist pick and in some years would be a contender for the prize for me. The quality of the Barnes work makes this a distant second for me. I’ve read only 5 3/4 of the nominees thus far.

  3. MHG Says:

    Sorry to disagree with Kimbofo, but Annie Dunne was not Sebastian Barry’s debut novel. He had written at least four previous novels although he tends no longer to list them on his biography and the first three are long out of print.

  4. kimbofo Says:

    MHG is right – Annie Dunne is not his debut novel, that was me leaving a comment too late at night! The Whereabouts of Eanus McNulty is his “official” debut, published in 1998 (I think?)

    I believe there are two previous novels to this — Mackers Garden (circa 1982) & The Engine of Owl-Light (1987), both of which are out of print.

  5. Sazerac Says:

    I wrote a review of this novel for a different forum. It contains the words ‘overwritten’, ‘contrived’, ‘self-conscious’, and ‘psychologically unconvincing’ . . .

  6. David Says:

    I enjoyed this as I have enjoyed Barry’s last two novels, which is to say the chief pleasure I draw from them is his mesmerisingly beautiful writing. A mere month on I find the details of the story are already starting to slip from my mind (and I couldn’t even begin to tell you what ‘The Secret Scripture’ is about anymore).
    That being said, I am enjoying the way he is building this tapestry of the Dunne family across his books, the way the different characters’ lives weave in and out of one another, occasionally sharing certain aspects (like the policeman father at Dublin castle) and I think one day I’d like to reread them all one after the other to get the full effect of that.
    But, yes, I found this engaging enough. It didn’t move me to tears as one review in the press said it was guaranteed to do (unless I was a particularly cold fish: guilty as charged).
    I do wish that at some point Barry had explained why Lilly was called Dolly in ‘A Long, Long Way’. Apparently Dolly was a nickname, but it would have been good to have that referenced in the book instead of having to look it up online, as I was somewhat confused by it (I kept thinking: who is Lilly? I don’t remember there being a Lilly).
    My second favourite of the Booker longlisters that I’ve read, but I can think of eight or nine books I’ve read this year that I would rate more highly (only one of which – Barnes – is on the actual longlist).

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for the thoughts everyone — especially to Kimbofo for the report on Barry’s live performance. I’m not big into author events but everything I’ve read on other blogs indicates that he really does add value to the book when he reads from it.

    I’d say from the comments that we have general agreement that Barry writes better than he plots. Certainly for some, that strength more than overcomes the weakness — I can understand that evaluation even if I don’t share it. Perhaps that is where my frustration lies — this author has all the talents to produce a truly great novel, but each one seems to fall short. And that makes “good to very good” seem like a criticism instead of a quite positive evaluation.

  8. Lee Monks Says:

    I wouldn’t be as munificent re: Barry’s writing ability as you are, Kevin (though it does interest me to hear that you rate him quite as highly), though I certainly share the general point. To reiterate a commonly-held view here, The Secret Scripture is exceedingly well written but I can’t remember a thing about it.

  9. MHG Says:

    There was also a short novel called Time Out Of Mind, published together with Strappado Square. These were withdrawn and destroyed.

  10. Guy Savage Says:

    I haven’t read Barry but I’ve been meaning to get around to him for some years. Something has always held me back and it’s been more than my every-growing TBR pile. Not sure what it is….

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: I have only read three (this one, The Secret Scripture and A Long Long Way). They were all entirely acceptable in the reading — he is a very good wordsmith — but I don’t remember a lot of details from them.

    MHG: I’ve always figured that when an author effectively disavows a work there wasn’t much reason for me to search it out. I’d probably feel differently were I an academic or thought this was one of the greatest authors of all time. I like and respect Barry but I don’t rate him that highly.

  12. MHG Says:

    Neither do I.

    I can identify with those commentators who have read his works, enjoyed them at the time and then forgotten all about them. For me, the mark of a really great book is the clarity with which I can remember it long after I put it down.

  13. Sazerac Says:

    Does it not say something that nobody is really discussing the book here, but mainly what else they have or haven’t read by Barry?

  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Sazerac: I suspect it does. Then again, I sort of set that up with the way I chose to frame my review so I am at least partly to blame.

  15. Sazerac Says:

    I think that no matter how you set up your review, if the book had really grabbed anyone they would have moved on to more interesting points by now. I could have a nice old rant about the thing itself, but everyone seems so polite here I dare not.

  16. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Barry is a writer that never tempts me. Leaving aside the slight whiff of Irish miserabilism I can’t quite say why. They just always sound a bit ordinary.

    I’m sure he can live without me as a reader and I acknowledge that I may well be missing out, but entirely acceptable just doesn’t cut it for me as a threshold. I want to be entertained, excited, provoked, challenged, many things, but not to find something well written but forgettable.

    Right, there was a guest post I missed and then I’ll be very interested to see your shortlist predictions.

  17. BuriedInPrint Says:

    When Eleanor Wachtel interviewed SM the other night, he discussed the fact that he originally felt that these novels were driven by a very personal need to bring members of his family to life on the page and, while he is grateful that others have found meaning in them, he hadn’t expected that to be the case. Much of what he had to say was about character (and relatively little to plot), which does seem to fit with your response to this novel in particular.

    Oddly, I hadn’t read any of his works before attending (usually I make a point of this, but my Giller obsession has claimed more reading time than I expected); nonetheless, this event definitely secured my interest in reading this novel (and the others referred to in your post/comments here). They’ve been added to my endless list!

    As others have already mentioned, his performance of this work is remarkable; when queried about the way he portrayed Lilly in the excerpts he read, he suggested that there was a little of himself in his interpretation of Lilly, (I think he said, a touch of a gruff, middle-aged Irishman) but that he has utter respect for other readers’ versions of her, too. I enjoyed the event overall, but that bit won me over.

  18. KevinfromCanada Says:

    BiP: Many thanks for this comment — I very much appreciate the observations here from someone who has actually seen Barry in person. And your reaction to that experience certainly confirms those that I have read elsewhere. I am sure the ability that he has to “present” his work will add to your enjoyment of not just this novel but his others.

    I won’t withdraw my concerns since I don’t think a reader should have to see or hear a writer to evaluate their work. But I am quite willing to acknowledge that those who have have an equal right to add that to their positive assessment.

    From your comment, it is interesting that the parts that irked me the most (e.g. inserting Martin Luther King) were purely incidental on his part, since he was telling a different story. I wonder if a good editor would have drawn that to his attention — and some minor alteration might have produced an even better book in the final analysis.

  19. Sazerac Says:

    A good editor would have done a lot more than that. There is a touch of the Sacred Cow about some of these Irish writers (I speak as an Irish person living in Ireland). The so-called interviews conducted locally border on the sycophantic. To me, this was a book shamelessly auditioning for some American tv or film company to swoop in with an offer of a mini series or epic family saga script.

  20. Cousin Rachel Says:

    A Long, Long Way, to my way of thinking was/is Barry’s best novel. It may be the best I’ve ever read.
    Also, Barry is quite assessible on YouTube if you want to hear him speak about or give readings of his work. He is a fascinating character

  21. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Rachel: I think I would agree with you on my Barry favorite. Frankly, in his other books (including this one), the prose gets just too previous and ends up overwhelming both his characters and his story.

  22. Gabrielle Renoir-Large Says:

    I didn’t feel that the prose overwhelmed the story, gorgeous as the prose is. I’m one, too, who think “A Long, Long Way” is Barry very best book to date. But I did love “On Canaan’s Side,” more for the language than the story, I’ll admit. I will read everything Barry publishes, though.

  23. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Gabrielle: I haven’t thought a lot about this book in the six months since I read it, so your comment is welcome. With that remove in place, my memory of it is that the sentimentality and romance were its strongest features which probably explains my response since neither of those characteristics are high on my list of favorites. Were I to read it again, I think I would probably try to pay more attention to the prose than to the story — that may have been an oversight on my part in my first reading.

  24. P. Butler Says:

    I know this may sound lame, but what did I miss that explains the dancing bear at the end? Help…

  25. KevinfromCanada Says:

    P. Butler: Sorry, I don’t remember the detail and don’t have access to my copy — so if some other visitor can help, please do.

  26. CousinRachel Says:

    The dancing bear at the end, I believe goes back to the first of the book where rebel steal a dancing bear from a traveller and let it loose in the Dunne house to ruin Lilly’s father’s investiture as police commissioner. She spoke of the hounds of sadness that invaded his eyes then and remained ever after….perhaps because there was the question of how the gate had been opened for them from the inside….therefore hinting at a betrayal from within…just as Lilly learns that her friend Nolan was actually Doherty, who had murdered her husband years before.
    Only my opinion but I’m guessing Ina is correct in assuming Barry is suggesting Lily died and the bear is the ‘life passing before one’s eyes before dying’ , therefore saving her from what her, and perhaps his, faith would consider the unforgivable sin of .suicide

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Many thanks for that thoughtful contribution. I would have had to reread the entire novel to be able to come up with anything half as good — and since I was not a big fan of the novel in the first place, that would not have been a pleasant experience.

      • CousinRachel Says:

        No thanks required, Kevin. It gave me a chance to reread portions of the novel which to me is sheer poetry. The pleasure was all mine! Thank YOU!.

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