Archives for posts with tag: Remembering

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.’


Rona Munro’s play is currently on at the Hampstead Theatre, Downstairs, and is a gem.

The piece is based on a true story – also depicted in the recent, and not widely acclaimed film The Vow – of a man who has post traumatic amnesia. The amnesia is selective, and affects recent memory, which means that he does not recognise his current wife of three years. His memory bank appears to have emptied from the moment he left his initial partner, and her daughter. Thus, all memory of the traumatic break-up and its aftermath have been erased, and he is stuck in a past moment that he perceived as happy. Yet, the debris of the break-up, its effect on his ex-partner and her daughter – become all too apparent to us, even if Donny has no recall. Plus, there is also the emotional trauma for his current wife, and her distress faced with a husband who does not recognise her, or even like her.

There is little in terms of plot, but there is a redemption of sorts in the end…

What the play provoked for me was some considerable musings on memory, identity, and how they interact, conflate, and define us humans.

When you think about it, pretty much everything we do is based on some sort of memory. We are memory-focused and memory-driven. Most, if not all, of how we behave and respond to life tends to be based on a past experience, which inevitably becomes a deposited remembering.

Even babies are born with memory, which stems from their in utero experience.

There is no such thing as a clean memory slate…

Thus, for Donny, the realisation that three years have been ‘erased’ is a hugely distressing and disturbing experience. He has to rely on others to fill in the gaps. And this brings us to the second consideration, that memories are subjective, not fact-based. Thus, others witness and remember shared experiences differently. There is rarely a right or wrong to remembering, but there is a wide continuum in how individuals perceive and remember events. Which adds to the definition of humanness, its diversity, and its greyness…

The play is great, and the cast, just 5 in an intimate theatre setting, do it justice.

Memory-making stuff.