(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.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.)