On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry

“Bill is gone. 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.”

When this year’s Man Booker Prize longlist was announced at the end of July, one of the titles that I was most looking forward to reading was this one, On Canaan’s Side. I read The Secret Scripture last year and fell in love with Sebastian Barry’s beautiful, poetic writing style. There are some similarities between The Secret Scripture and On Canaan’s Side, the most obvious one being the idea of an old woman looking back on her life, but the stories are different enough to make this book a good read too.

On Canaan’s Side is narrated by Lilly, a retired cook. At the beginning of the book she is eighty-nine years old and has just lost her beloved grandson, Bill, who has committed suicide after returning from fighting in the Gulf War. As Lilly mourns for her grandson, she begins to remember all the things that have happened in her life and over the next seventeen days she shares her memories with us.

Canaan, in the Bible, is the ‘promised land’ and the title On Canaan’s Side represents the idea that many Irish people had that America was a place where they would be safe and happy. Lilly’s story begins during her childhood in Ireland as the daughter of the superintendent of the Dublin police. She is forced to run away to America when both she and her boyfriend, Tadg Bere, find themselves the target of an IRA death sentence. However, Lilly soon discovers that even there, on ‘Canaan’s Side’, she and Tadg are still in danger. The following decades are filled with tragedy and sorrow. Lilly’s story is unbearably sad and yet her voice never becomes self-pitying; she stays a strong and resilient character until the day when her ‘eighty-nine year-old heart’ finally breaks.

At first I thought I wasn’t going to enjoy this book because the first chapter was very ‘stream-of-consciousness’ and it seemed as if it was going to be one of those novels where nothing really happens. But when I got further into the book and the story began to take shape I didn’t want to stop reading. I mentioned at the start of this post how beautifully written The Secret Scripture was and I thought Sebastian Barry’s writing was possibly even more beautiful in this book. I usually prefer books with more plot but the way Barry uses language and imagery is so stunning and mesmerising, the slow pace of the story didn’t bother me.

And it’s really not true that nothing happens: there’s murder, rape and suicide, for a start. Other themes include war (both World Wars, Vietnam and the Gulf War) and how it’s possible to survive a war physically but not mentally; identity and how sometimes we can live with people for years without really knowing who they are; important events in Irish and American history; racial tensions; love and loss.

I loved this book and although it was slow to begin with, I was soon swept away by the quality of Barry’s writing and the atmosphere his words convey. I haven’t read his previous books Annie Dunne and A Long, Long Way but as they are about Lilly’s sister and brother I really should read them soon.

5 thoughts on “On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry

  1. Shirley says:

    This was too slow for me and I didn’t like it as much as Secret Scripture and A Long Long Way, but I agree his writing is very poetic and beautiful. Will be interesting to see if this one makes the shortlist!

    • Helen says:

      I’m surprised it didn’t make the shortlist, Shirley, but I didn’t have time to read many of the other longlisted titles so I can’t really comment! And I think I liked The Secret Scripture slightly better than this one too.

  2. Sue says:

    I absolutely loved this book – thought the writing in the final chapter was some of the best I have ever read and one of the images will stay with me forever.

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad you loved this as much as I did, Sue. The whole book was beautifully written but I agree that the writing in the last chapter was particularly good.

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