On Canaan’s Side

Written by Sebastian Barry
Review by Gordon O'Sullivan

The narrator of On Canaan’s Side, 89-year-old Lilly Bere, feels herself at the end of her life. She is the midst of an intense grief, mourning the recent loss of her grandson, Bill, and everybody she has loved is now dead. She is left only with her memories, the entry point to the narrative of this novel, one filtered purely through her sensibilities. Lilly’s story is both intimate and grand. As she tries to truly grasp what her life has been, the reader is transported through some 70 years of history, beginning in Ireland at the end of the First World War and continuing right through her subsequent and dangerous flight to America, where Lilly’s life of hope and pain unfolds against the cultural changes of her adopted country, the immigrant’s promised land of the title.

Sebastian Barry continues in this, his fifth novel, to explore the almost forgotten stories of the marginalised victims of Ireland’s quest for independence. There are narrative connections too with earlier novels; Lilly is the younger sister of Willie Dunne, the central character of his hugely successful novel A Long Long Way.

This is not an easy book to read in one sense, as Lilly’s life is not one of untrammelled joy, but it is a simple pleasure to read for the wonderful lyricism of Barry’s prose. His writing is truly poetic, constantly creating images full of an emotional power that drives this novel. He concentrates on tiny fragments of Lilly’s experience to create an intense narrative sustained by Lilly’s memories of love and loss. This is simply a wonderful novel.