Old God’s Time by Sebastian Barry – #ReadingIrelandMonth23

Sebastian Barry is one of my favourite Irish authors; he writes beautifully and I’ve loved some of his previous books – in fact, the only one I’ve read that I didn’t like much was Days Without End, mainly because the subject (army life in the American West during the Indian Wars) didn’t really appeal to me. His new novel, Old God’s Time, has a very different setting – Ireland in the 1990s – and I hoped it would be another good one.

Old God’s Time is the story of Tom Kettle, a recently retired police detective who lives in the annex of a castle in Dalkey, a coastal resort to the southeast of Dublin. The castle overlooks the Irish Sea and Tom is finding some contentment in the quietness and solitude of his retirement…until, one day, two younger policeman arrive at his door. They are reopening an historic case Tom worked on in the 1960s and they want to hear his thoughts on it.

Forced to confront moments from his past that he would have preferred to forget, Tom begins to remember. He remembers his beloved wife June and his two children Joseph and Winnie, all now dead, in separate tragic incidents. He remembers his career as a detective and his time in the army. And he remembers that terrible, disturbing thirty-year-old case, linked to one of the darkest episodes in Ireland’s recent history.

When I first read the blurb for this book, it sounded like a crime novel, but being familiar with Sebastian Barry’s work, I knew it would probably be something quite different! In fact, the crime element is pushed into the background until much later in the book, and instead we spend time inside Tom’s head, watching him go about his daily business while memories fleet in and out of his mind, almost at random. The memories don’t come to him chronologically, but in a haphazard, disordered way and sometimes it is unclear whether he is even remembering things accurately. This doesn’t make for easy reading and I spent the first half of the novel feeling very confused. ‘Stream-of-consciousness’ writing is not my favourite style at the best of times and although it does usually work for me in Barry’s novels, I wasn’t won over until the second half of the book. From that point, I was gripped.

The story that does eventually unfold in Old God’s Time is very sad and very grim. It’s a subject that is painful and difficult to read about, but it’s one that needs to be discussed and not ignored. My heart broke for Tom, June and the other characters, but at the same time it’s not a completely miserable book and the beautiful descriptions of the Irish landscape provide a bit of respite from the sadness of the story. I didn’t like this book as much as The Secret Scripture or On Canaan’s Side, but it’s a powerful novel and one I’m pleased I read.

Thanks to Faber & Faber for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

I’m counting this towards Reading Ireland Month 2023, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books.

15 thoughts on “Old God’s Time by Sebastian Barry – #ReadingIrelandMonth23

  1. Elle says:

    I loved Days Without End, actually, but it’s the only Barry I’ve read! I liked the style a lot, and Old God’s Time sounds like he’s pushing himself a bit with the stream-of-consciousness but also dealing with really important and thematically weighty material.

    • Helen says:

      I think everyone loved Days Without End apart from me! I tend to prefer his books set in 20th century Ireland. This one was great, once I got past the confusing beginning.

  2. Jekdc says:

    The only Sebastian Barry I have read is Days Without End which I found genuinely very moving but quite challenging because of the writing style, so I have been slightly put off reading anything else he has written for fear of the effort that is going to be required. I have to say the references to stream of consciousness in his latest is not very encouraging I’m afraid!

    • Helen says:

      His books do take some effort and I didn’t really get into this one until halfway through. I’m not a fan of stream of consciousness writing either and often struggle with it, but he writes so beautifully I’m happy to persevere.

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