On Canaan’s Side opens with eighty-nine year old Lilly Dunne grieving for her grandson Bill who, having returned from war, has taken his own life just as the novel opens.
Bill’s suicide is the latest in a series of losses endured by Lilly over her long life –a series that began with the death of her brother Willy who lost his life in World War I and whose story is told in another Barry novel, A Long, Long Way.
Over the seventeen days following the discovery of Bill’s body in a school toilet, Lilly reflects on her life — from her early days in Wicklow and Dublin where her father was a senior policeman based in Dublin Castle to her sudden flight from Ireland in the company of Tadg Bere the reason behind her move to the United States — Canaan, the promised land — and the long, winding course that has led her to the moment where On Canaan’s Side opens as she grieves for her grandson and resolves to take her own life.
Part I of this novel focuses on the story of Lilly and Tadg Bere who are forced to leave Ireland when they discover that their names are on a ‘death list’ as a result of Tadg’s membership of the Black & Tans. Like so many Irish of their generation, they choose America as their promised land but for Lily and Tadg the menace of the death threat travels the Atlantic with them with desperate consequences.
Part II sees Lilly reflect on her friendship with Cassie and how, through Cassie, she met and married Joe Kinderman with whom she had a son, Ed. But Joe was a man with hidden secrets and we are not entirely surprised when we learn that he disappeared leaving Lilly to raise their son alone.
In Part III we discover that the old menace from Ireland still lurks in the shadows and, together with the long shades thrown by World War I and the early years of the Irish Free State, is perhaps one of the strongest determining forces of Lilly’s life.
On Canaan’s Side is a sensitively told story that is almost unbearably sad. As in an earlier Barry novel, The Secret Scripture, memory is an important theme and anyone who has ever had the care of an elderly relative will be moved by Lilly’s considered reflection on her life’s relationships and events. Barry is a skilled and gifted writer who draws you into the world he creates so that you keep on turning the pages even though you don’t want to get to the end of story. For me, On Canaan’s Side is one of his best.
On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry is published by Faber & Faber. Paperback ISBN:9780571226542 Published:05.04.2012
I read the Kindle edition which I purchased on amazon.com.