I really enjoyed Barry’s earlier novel The Secret Scripture, although I was a little taken aback by the final denouement, which felt a little contrived, and unnecessary. The book had been magical up to that point.

Nonetheless, I eagerly began On Canaan’s Side this week, and finished it within very few days. Barry’s prose is seductive and addictive, creating a narrative that you do not want to leave.

Similar to The Secret Scripture, On Canaan’s Side has an elderly Irish woman as the main protagonist. In both, she looks back and tells her story. There the similarities pretty much end, and I did not feel that Barry was regurgitating a trope.

Like Colm Toibin (particularly in Brooklyn), Barry writes so sympathetically and impressively from a female perspective.

On Canaan’s Side opens with:

‘What is the sound of an eighty-nine-year-old heart breaking? It might not be much more than silence, and certainly a small slight sound.’

Lilly’s story is that of a life beset and consumed by tragedy, and there is little in terms of redemption or relief from sadness throughout. As such, it is very much an ‘Irish book’. We are good at tragedy, and On Canaan’s Side does feel authentic, from this, but not only this, perspective.

Barry writes beautifully, and there are very many sentences and phrases throughout that make you stop, and consider:

‘Tears have a better character cried alone.’

Tragedy begins early for Lilly, as she remembers events from almost 80 years earlier, when growing up in Ireland:

‘The grief at first sat in us, and then leaked out into the chairs, and at last into the very walls and sat in the mortar.’

The memories of those times, the almost palpable grief, never leave Lilly, shadowing her life throughout:

‘We may be immune to typhoid, tetanus, chicken-pox, diphtheria, but never memory. There is no inoculation against that.’

I was intrigued by Lilly’s assessment of her doctor, Dr Earnshaw. This is a discussion for another day, perhaps:

‘But he is very austere, and depressed-looking, and he never smiles. You can have confidence in a man like that, though, in the manner of doctoring.’

Lilly leaves Ireland, settling in America, where she initially spends much time lost and alone ‘a prisoner in the open asylum of the world.’ Her best possession at that point, she reflects, was her youth, ‘but that of course was invisible to me.’

Despite the tragedy and sorrow that follow Lilly throughout her long life, this is not a book of sadness. Uplifting perhaps not, but very real and believable, and in its own way life affirming. Similar to The Secret Scripture, I was unsure about the denouement. But I had already loved the book, and Lilly, at that point, and there was no going back. It is more of a mild niggle…

Life, loss, love, grief, tragedy, remembering and memory are all the stuff of life, and so it seems of Barry’s fiction-yet-real novels:

‘To remember sometimes is a great sorrow, but when the remembering has been done, there comes afterwards a very curious peacefulness.’

CQ

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