I always think it is so wonderful when you find a book you love, then read another by the same author and love it just as much. After all, it doesn’t always follow that you enjoy everything a novelist has written, so I was delighted to find On Canaan’s Side, by Sebastian Barry, was every bit as good as The Secret Scripture. It centres on 89-year-old Lilly Bere, who tells the story of her life, while mourning the suicide of her grandson. Like Roseanne, in Secret Scripture, Lilly is not political, but her story has its origins in the turmoil surrounding the creation of the Irish Free State: Barry’s writing is infused with the tragic history of a divided nation.
Lilly’s mother dies giving birth to her, so the girl is raised by her elder sisters and her father, a high ranking policeman in the Dublin Metropolitan Police. As a teenager she falls in love with Tadg, a member of the ‘Black and Tans’, the British Army unit recruited to suppress the men and women who fought for Irish independence. Consequently the couple are regarded as traitors to the new Ireland, and their lives are at risk, so they flee to America to start a new life under a new name.
They are followed by a vengeful killer who guns Tadg down, and Lilly is left alone in a strange land, cut off from her family, and with no friends. She flees again, and is rescued by Cassie, who finds her a job and a place to live. For years Lilly lives in fear, waiting for the killer to find her, but gradually she creates another life for herself and falls in love with Joe. But Joe has a secret he cannot reveal to the world, and abandons her when she becomes pregnant, so once again Lilly is forced to rebuild her life.
Her story is played out against a background of war and assassination. War and conflict are continuing themes. The men in her life are all damaged by war. Her brother Willie Dunne, a volunteer in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, is killed in the First World War, although his visits home show that the real him has disappeared long before his death. Apparently, he is the main character in Barry’s earlier novel, A Long Long Way, which I have yet to read. Then there is Lilly’s son, changed for ever by his service in Vietnam, who opts out of ‘normal’ society, unable to cope with the demands of everyday life. And, finally, there is the grandson she has brought up, scarred by the terrible things he saw during the Gulf War.
Barry really gets into mind of his chief protagonist, exploring love, life, death, grief, friendship, revenge, compassion and identity, all with deftest of touches – especially the denouement, when the boundaries between enmity and friendship become so blurred. He is a wonderful story teller, who writes in faultless prose. When writing about The Secret Scripture I said: “It is a wonderful read that could only have been written by an Irishman. The lovely, lyrical language sings with an Irish lilt, following the cadences of speech in the author’s native land.” I think that applies just as much to On Canaan’s Side.
In the notes I scribbled while I was reading I was struck by the number of references to birds, and reflecting on that now I wonder whether this was down to chance, or whether they represent a kind of freedom the characters never achieve. By the way, I would defy anyone to read this without crying. Keep a handkerchief to hand (I still use proper cotton hankies, but you are welcome to use tissues if you prefer), because parts of it are very, very sad, and the depth of Lilly’s grief – for her grandson and her past – is very, very great.