Walter Scott Prize shortlist: On Canaan’s Side

Richard Lee, Carol McGrath, Gordon O'Sullivan


Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side: the Historical Novel as a Paean of Loss

Sebastian Barry has been twice short-listed for the Booker prize (A Long, Long Way, 2005, and The Secret Scripture, 2008). The Secret Scripture won the 2008 Costa Book of the Year and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. Barry is also an acclaimed poet and playwright.

His novels are written firmly in the tradition of history-as-lament. His characters are victims of the circumstances that overwhelm them, their lives lyrically and movingly played out against forces beyond their control. This is a rich seam for both literary historical fiction and for chart-storming sagas. These stories can play themselves out against any backdrop, but the twentieth century is often favoured for its brutally extreme divisiveness and because it carries a sense of family history. Differently dressed versions of this theme of novel are Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (Louis de Bernieres’ epic tragedy of Kythira in World War II), The Color Purple (Alice Walker’s Pulitzer-winning tale of brutality in 1930s Georgia) but equally Catherine Cookson’s unsentimentalised and best-selling tales of lives blighted in England’s north-east.

Irish writers have written particularly stylishly in this vein over many years. Though the emotional pull of these tales depends most strongly on the character of victim-as-hero, these are also celebrations of lives lived indomitably in the face of adversity, and good-heartedness despite heartbreak – hence paean, more than lament.

We asked two of our staff reviewers, Carol McGrath and Gordon O’Sullivan, to look at On Canaan’s Side as ‘literary historical fiction’. We found two ardent fans.

This is the second in a series of 8 articles featuring the Walter Scott Prize. You can read the first here: What is Literary Historical Fiction?


Gordon O’Sullivan explores the Double Identity of Lilly Bere

On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry has been on the shortlist for several prizes already this year and is now nominated for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.

The plot of the book is swiftly told. Reeling from the news of the death of her grandson, her last living relative, eighty-nine-year-old Lilly Bere dips into the well of her memory to narrate the main events of her life. In seventeen chapters, each representing a day of her new-found grief, Lilly takes the reader from her birth in Ireland through seventy years of history to her present day, all the while asking herself does she have the right to be alive when everyone she has loved is dead. “What is the sound of an 89-year-old heart breaking? It might not be much more than silence, and certainly a small slight sound.”

Barry continues in this, his fifth novel, to explore the almost forgotten stories of the victims and losers of Ireland’s War of Independence, attempting to illuminate their memories and experiences and in some way to recover their identity.


everything that happens to Lilly stems from her misfortune of being on the losing side. The history of Ireland is what forms her, even on the other side of the Atlantic, on Canaan’s side


Lilly is an immigrant in America, the Canaan’s land of the title. Other Irish writers like Colm Toibin have written of the specific Irish tradition of leaving Ireland and the split identity of the emigrant. Barry however gives Lilly a double and separate identity, one secret, one public. Her love of Tadhg Bere, a man on the wrong side of Irish history, forces her flight to America. There she is an Irish immigrant in public but an Irish exile within. Even if she wishes to leave this identity behind she cannot; everything that happens to Lilly stems from her misfortune of being on the losing side. The history of Ireland is what forms her, even on the other side of the Atlantic, on Canaan’s side.

Lilly’s memory is the guardian of her identity, anchoring her and allowing her to know her past, immediately and directly, where “a measure of tragedy is stitched into everything, if you follow the thread long enough.” Lilly cannot fight these memories; they are overwhelming: “We may be immune to typhoid, tetanus, chickenpox, diphtheria, but never memory. There is no inoculation against that.”

Barry endows Lilly’s memories with a lyricism that lifts them from the familiar and imbues them with a significance surpassing the momentous events happening in the America of her time and experience; it mythologises them. It is those memories that provide the reader with a simple portrait of memory which rises above the pain and tragedy of Lilly’s present and provides unexpected happiness, “When things are summoned up, it is all present time, pure and simple. So that, much to my surprise, people I have loved are allowed to live again.”


His writing is electric when he shreds Lilly’s life into tiny pieces and fastens on small but significant details


However finally what sets Sebastian Barry apart is the poetry of his prose. As dramatist, Barry brings some tools from that form to the novel. His writing is electric when he shreds Lilly’s life into tiny pieces and fastens on small but significant details, immersing the reader in the story. In addition, the unadulterated lyricism of his prose produces so many arresting images that they are almost in danger of slowing the story down, “But there was something tugging, tugging at me now, some intimation, like a drop of lemon in a jug of milk, to sour it for the soda bread.”

On Canaan’s Side is deservedly nominated for the Walter Scott prize because this is literary historical fiction at its very best. Complex and illuminating historical detail is sown throughout the story with the deftest of touches. Tragic and historical events sneak up and ambush Lilly in this novel rather than lead a full frontal attack.


Carol McGrath discovers a poignant Book of Memory

Personal and historical memories are important themes in Sebastian Barry’s beautifully crafted novel On Canaan’s Side. The novel, narrated by Lilly Bere, opens on Long Island as she mourns the death of her grandson Bill. Her story gracefully slips back to the moment when she was forced to flee Dublin at the end of the First World War and then follows her life in America (Canaan), a land filled with hope and danger.  Lilly’s narrative is anchored in her present need to tell everything. ‘We are not immune to memory’, she says as she explains why she is writing her memories:

I am dwelling on the things I love, even if a measure of tragedy is stitched into everything, if you follow the thread long enough. The one thread maybe from Bill to my brother Willie, all the way back, through how many wars is that, it must be at least three? No it is four. Four killing wars with all those sons milled into them.

Lilly hooks us into her memories; reigniting recollections of her brother’s death in World War 1, an event that introduces his friend Tadge Bere into the story. Lilly and Tadge fall in love and it seems as if all will be well, but life is not so simple.  As Lilly writes about their romance, she becomes immersed in echoes of her deep past. Her childhood, her father’s time at Dublin Castle as a police sergeant and the Irish Civil War all provide vivid and unforgettable scenes. In one memorable scene Lilly tells us about a huge bear that burst in on her father’s day of success causing chaos.  The event is recollected like an old black and white photograph with everyone is placed waiting in a family group for the picture to be taken. We experience the embarrassment her proud father felt as the bear rampaged through them upsetting the photographer, spoiling a perfect moment. The bear is the unexpected, reminding us that in life nothing necessarily follows a preordained pathway. A metaphorical bear haunts this story until its end. There are no loose ends and that is part of the novel’s perfection. The smallest moment has later resonance.

After he is demobbed Tadge Bere joins the Black and Tans, the unwanted deadly army that was cobbled together to peace-keep during the Irish Civil War. He becomes Lilly’s fiance but any future happiness for the young couple in Ireland is doomed. A terrible incident leaves them with no choice but to emigrate, frightened and in a hurry.  We follow Lilly’s life up to the present through its various stages; two cities and a marriage until we finally find out why she retires contentedly to a cottage near the sea shore in an alien country which has over decades become her country. Throughout, her narrative is shadowed by secrets and revelations.


Lilly… tells of how she is pursued by ghosts of the Irish troubles


An important message that flows out from Barry’s novel is that history is about ordinary people like Lilly Bere whose personal happiness and tragedies are lived out through it. As Lilly reflects on the past, she tells of how she is pursued by ghosts of the Irish troubles. They haunt her for years and provide episodes of tension in the story. But Barry also engages us a wider social history.  He captures the energy of Chicago in the early twentieth century, subtly drawing our attention to its close knit city communities; to how the depression affected lives; to the struggles of the nineteen thirties, the war, racial issues throughout the last century and eventually to Long Island where Lilly’s last sanctuary is a cottage amongst gorse and dunes. It is a small novel that covers much historical and emotional territory with eloquence.

Lilly’s voice pervades the story gripping hold of your emotions from its first simple but resonating sentence, ‘What is the sound of an eighty-nine-year old heart breaking?’. The emotional echo of that simple, extraordinary line hooks us in. Each chapter represents a day after Bill’s death and her reminiscences continue over a period of seventeen days. These are interspersed with her daily interaction with a group of caring friends on Long Island, reminding us of who she is now. And, as she returns to reflection, her memories are like our own memories. Some events stay intensely with us. Others are a kind of mixed up mirage. But memory is selective and, despite Lilly’s great age, the scenes she describes are crystal clear.

Lilly Bere’s resilient character lies at the novel’s heart. Its emotional heart reaches out from the past into the present through a personality whose essence lingers long after the last page is turned. The subject matter floats in and out of sadness grabbing us as it leads us through the wider memories of history, history that touches us all in different ways, but which, just like a personal history, is illuminated by hindsight.


‘a piece of home, a badge, a sort of poem really, a song and we as little children would smell it, pull on its scent with our noses gratefully. And I am remembering other things, the bell-flowers on the ditches that we would burst between thumb and index finger…’


Sebastian Barry’s prose is so well-crafted that often it reads like verse. He is a master of layered meaning which he presents through succinct and beautiful sentences. One poignant moment occurs when Lilly brings her father heather after he retired to Wicklow, ‘a piece of home, a badge, a sort of poem really, a song and we as little children would smell it, pull on its scent with our noses gratefully. And I am remembering other things, the bell-flowers on the ditches that we would burst between thumb and index finger…’  Equally beautifully, Barry writes lines that reach deep into our collective memories. In reference to sons and wars he writes with simplicity, ‘Parents grew old in the little aftermath of letters.’  The novel’s title echoes a Biblical history, suggesting that a life is a journey, and remembering the Biblical story of the Exodus Barry foreshadows loss and betrayal with the following words, ‘and now it was all laid out before him, before us, like a glittering Canaan. I will never forget the happiness in that ordinary Chicago afternoon, and I give God thanks for it.’ However, with stark realism, Canaan contains darkness as well as light.  ‘They wouldn’t allow us to cross into Canaan, but would follow us over the river, and kill him on Canaan’s side.’ On Canaan’s Side is an ode to the sorrow of war. Lilly’s grandson had been a mentally scared veteran of the Gulf War; her son never recovered from Vietnam; the Irish Civil War left a stain on her own life.

On Canaan’s Side a remarkable read for Lilly Bere’s moving narrative, for its small period details and for its pitch-perfect prose that reaches into our very souls and makes Lilly’s story our story.  It is like a Heaney poem which is assembled to contain layers of deep, deep resonance; a terrific sense of personality and memory. It is an historical novel to savour and it is definitely deserving of a great prize.


Sebastian Barry talks about On Canaan’s Side


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