Reviewed by Em Angevaare
A friend once asked me ‘why are Irish stories always so sad?’. I didn’t quite agree with her assessment – she was leafing through a book by Roddy Doyle at the time – but I saw what she meant. The question returned to me after I finished Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side. It’s a story that could have, almost should have, been unbearable. Like Barry’s earlier The Secret Scripture, the book is about an elderly woman looking back on a troubled life, rooted in a troubled land. After the death of her grandson, Lilly Bere starts writing down her memories, even though she dislikes writing. A ‘confession’ she calls this, because she does not plan to live long herself. The memories take longer to write than she expects, a lot has happened to her. From the moment she flees Ireland for America after death threats are made against her fiancé, it is a story full of all the reverberating sadness of the Irish fight for independence, the sadness of sons going off to war in far-off places, the sadness of a young man dying before his old grandmother. It is not just that Barry makes beautiful prose out of this – though he does, with every word feeling as if it has landed in just the right place – but that his protagonist, through all her misfortune, continues to find beauty in the world. The last tragedy breaks her heart, but she has kept that heart to break all her 89 years. And while Barry carefully captures Lilly’s pain, it is his portrayal of her more elusive strength which makes On Canaan’s Side so moving.
I am wary of answering my friend’s question with a glib ‘because Irish history is so sad’, or to claim that the Irish have a special talent for making something beautiful out of sadness. Nevertheless, in Sebastian Barry’s case, both answers apply.
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