On Canaan's Side
Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, a mesmerizing new novel from the award-winning author of The Secret Scripture
A first-person narrative of Lilly Bere’s life, On Canaan’s Side opens as the eighty-five-year-old Irish émigré mourns the loss of her grandson, Bill. Lilly, the daughter of a Dublin policeman, revisits her eventful past, going back to the moment she was forced to flee Ireland at the end of the First World War. She continues her tale in America, where—far from her family—she first tastes the sweetness of love and the bitterness of betrayal.
Spanning nearly seven decades, Sebastian Barry’s extraordinary fifth novel explores memory, war, family ties, love, and loss, distilling the complexity and beauty of life into his haunting prose.
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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 I was four I owned a porcelain doll given me by a strange agency. My mother’s sister, who lived down in Wicklow, had kept it from her own childhood and that of her sister, and gave it to me as a sort of keepsake of my mother. At four such a doll may be precious for other reasons, not least her beauty. I can still see the painted face, calm and oriental, and the blue silk dress she wore. My father much to my puzzlement was worried by such a gift. It troubled him in a way I had no means to understand. He said it was too much for a little girl, even though the same little girl he himself loved with a complete worship.
One Sunday about a year after I was first given it, I insisted on bringing it to mass with me, despite the long and detailed protestations of my father, who was religious in the sense he hoped there was an afterlife. He bet all his heart on that. Somehow a doll was not a fitting mass-goer in his estimation.
As I carried her in stubbornly to the pro-cathedral in Marlborough Street, by some accident, possibly the great atmosphere there of seriousness, she started to fall from my arms. To this day I am not certain, not entirely, that I didn’t let her go on some peculiar impulse. But if I did, I immediately regretted it. The ground of the cathedral was flagged and hard. Her beautiful dress could not save her, and her perfect face hit the stone and smashed worse than an egg. My heart broke for her in the same instance, so that the sound of her destruction became in my childish memory the sound of my heart breaking. And even though it was a babyish fancy, I do wonder now if it might not be a sound like that an eighty-nine-year-old heart makes, coming asunder from grief – a small, slight sound. But the feeling of it is like a landscape engulfed in floodwater in the pitch darkness, and everything, hearth and byre, animal and human, terrified and threatened. It is as if someone, some great agency, some CIA of the heavens, knew well the little mechanism that I am, and how it is wrapped and fixed, and has the booklet or manual to undo me, and cog by cog and wire by wire is doing so, with no intention ever to put me back together again, and indifferent to the fact that all my pieces are being thrown down and lost. I am so terrified by grief that there is solace in nothing. I carry in my skull a sort of molten sphere instead of a brain, and I am burning there, with horror, and misery. God forgive me. God help me. I must settle myself. I must. Please, God, help me. Do You see me? I am sitting here at my kitchen table, with its red Formica. The kitchen is gleaming. I have made tea. I scalded the pot, even in my distraction. One spoon for me and one for the pot. I let it brew, as always, waited, as always, the yellow light in the window facing the sea as solid-looking as an old bronze shield. In my grey dress of heavy linen, that I regretted buying the moment I paid out the money for it in Main Street
years ago, and still regret, though it is warm in this struggling weather. I will drink the tea. I will drink the tea.
Bill is gone.
Nothing else on earth would have set me to writing. I hate writing, I hate pens and paper and all that fussiness. I have done well enough without it too, I think. Oh, I am lying to myself. I have feared writing, being scarcely able to write my name until I was eight. The nuns in North Great George’s Street were not kind about that. But books have saved me sometimes, that is the truth – my Samaritans. Cookery books when I was learning my trade, oh, years ago, though in these later years I sometimes still find myself dipping back into my tattered White House Cook Book, right enough, to remind myself of some elusive detail. There is no good cook that has not found errors even in their favourite cookbook, and marked them in the margins, like an old book maybe in the lost library of Alexandria. I will read the paper on Sunday sometimes, in a certain mood, from stem to stern. Burn through it like a growing flame. I quite like the Bible in a rarer mood. The Bible is like a particular music, you cannot always catch the tune of it. My grandson Bill also liked the Bible, he specialised in unpicking the book of Revelation. He said that was what it was like, the desert, Kuwait, burning burning, like the lake of fire. He who is not written in the book of life will be cast into the lake of fire.
I like stories that other people will tell you, straight from the mouth – or the gob as we used to say in Ireland. Easygoing tales, off the cuff, humorous. Not the heavy-hearted tales of history.
And I have had enough history for a lifetime from my own life itself, not to mention the life of my employer, Mrs Wolohan.
That is an Irish name of course, but as there is no W in the Irish language I must suppose the letter was added in America, many years ago, in another generation. Because one thing I have noticed about words in America, they don’t stay still. Like the people themselves. Only the birds of America seem to stick, birds whose natures and colours so intrigued and confused me when first I came. Hereabouts, these days, the seaside sparrow, the clapper rail, the grackle, and the piping plover, and the thirteen species of warbler that grace these shores. I myself have been about a bit, all told. The first town I hit was New Haven, a thousand thousand moons ago, as one might say. With my beloved Tadg. Oh, that was a wild story enough. But I will try and write about it tomorrow. I am cold, even though the heat of early summer is adequate. I am cold because I cannot find my heart.
“Sebastian Barry’s achievement, enhanced by his latest novel, On Canaan’s Side, may be too great to be defined by the Booker or any other literary prize. Barry, the greatest prose writer in Irish letters—which by definition makes him the greatest writer of prose in the English language…No other novelist now writing can convey as Barry does the way in which unrighted wrongs continue to reverberate down through the ages, creating new versions of old tragedies for people with no knowledge of their origins…On Canaan’s Side fits seamlessly into Barry’s unique and expanding vision, seeking to restore with language that which has been taken away by time. Its real subject isn’t politics or even history but memory, a memory which reveals that ‘a measure of tragedy is stitched into everything if you follow the thread long through.’” — Allen Barra, The Daily Beast "Must Reads"
“Somewhere on the second page of this book, your heart will break, and you will devour every glimmering image and poetic line as if the sheer act of reading might alter the course of Lilly Bere's haunting tale. A story of love and loss, as Irish as the white heather and as big-hearted as America itself.” —Helen Simonson, author of the New York Times bestselling Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand
“Richly detailed, often cinematic…This is no self-indulgent apologia, and Irish writer Sebastian Barry makes the fine distinction between sentiment and sentimentality with a deft hand...With all the quiet interiority and the equanimity with which events are recalled here, it’s easy to overlook how exciting those events were. The “plot” is full of surprises – many shocking. War, single parenthood, betrayal, unexpected acts of compassion, death too early – or in at least one case, too late – and race relations are all threads in the tapestry of Lilly’s life. Accommodations must be made at every turn and Lilly makes them, all the while maintaining her own moral poise. Deservedly short-listed twice previously for the Man Booker Prize, Barry in his current offering maintains, and at times exceeds, the high level of finely wrought empathy attained in those award nominees…And as in those two novels, the play of history as it most intimately affects individual lives in such an infinite variety of ways is on exquisitely touching display.” — The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Sebastian Barry, one of Ireland’s most successful playwrights and novelists, is at his best when he is writing about those who find themselves marginalized in the new Ireland as it emerges from under the yoke of British. And in his new book, On Canaan’s Side, we once again find him dealing with characters whose lives are swept up in the changing tide of Ireland’s independence…As always with Barry, the language is beautiful. I had to slow myself down to savor the way he puts words together, for he is a master craftsman.” — Patricia, Harty Irish America
“Lilly Bere is exceptional. She frees herself from one homeland and takes root in another. Her story is as American as it is Irish…elegiac…this Dubliner’s portrayal of our city feels organic. From the East Ohio Gas explosion to a run-in with racism at Luna Park, he weaves a rich, authentic backdrop. His prose is roundabout and tender…It’s a testament to the power of Barry’s quietly elegant prose that her immigrant story seems so tragic and so real.” — Laura DeMarco, The Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Sebastian Barry is a significant Irish writer and his new novel, set mainly in the United States, is a wonderful introduction to his work…The plot is beautifully crafted. Lilly’s wanderings…make the story seem episodic, but Barry knows exactly what he’s doing; the latter part of the novel has several convincing surprises.” — Minneapolis StarTribune
“Gorgeously written.” — Milkwaukee JournalSentinel
“[A] compact but leisurely told narrative rich in mood and depth… On Canaan’s Side’s climactic pages glow with wonder and terror. They reach a catharsis of prose poetry as they mingle dramatically.” — New York Journal of Books
“Tripping, liquid prose that adroitly evokes everything from the smell of an Irish countryside to the heaviness of grief.” — Booklist
“Barry’s skills are evident as he tenderly unspools Lilly’s story, with a fine eye for intimate moments.” — Publishers Weekly
“A masterful novel filled with the bittersweet ruminations…It also sustains a page-turning momentum, leaving the reader in suspense until the very end whether this novel is an extended suicide note, a confession or an affirmation of life's blessings and embrace of its contradictions, as those various strains show the possibility of becoming one… Lilly reveals herself to be a woman of uncommon sense and boundless compassion…A novel to be savored.” — Kirkus Reviews
“On Canaan's Side is written with vast sympathy and tenderness. Sebastian Barry's handling of voice and cadence is masterly. His fictional universe is filled with life, quiet truth and exquisite intimacy; it is also fully alert to the power and irony of history. In evoking Lilly Bere, he has created a most memorable character.”—Colm Tóibín, author of the Costa Novel Award winning Brooklyn
“A marvel of empathy and tact.” —Joseph O’Neill, author of the PEN / Faulkner Award winning novel Netherland
“Barry takes quiet lives, in this instance Lilly Bere’s, adds the backdrop of political turmoil in Ireland after WWI, couples it with the expanse of 21st-century America, and ends up with a story that is both epic and intimate…this masterful storyteller takes[s] your breath away, after taking your hand and walking you through these lives, creating attachment and empathy for his characters yet leaving you with joy; appreciating light from the dark. You are safe and satisfied and enriched by his writing.” — Roxanne Coady, Publisher's Weekly "Galley Talk"
Who is Lilly (Dunne) Bere?
Lilly is her own woman firstly. She’s the daughter of the Chief Superintendent of the Dublin Police of the old Imperial regime in Ireland, a sister of Willie Dunne in A Long Long Way, and so a sister of Annie Dunne in her own novel Annie Dunne. Willie fought and died in France in the First World War, Annie stayed at home, but Lilly is obliged to flee Ireland and try and make a go of it in America. She is a person rooted in Ireland but grateful in her heart to America for offering her sanctuary, her version of Canaan. Her principle possession is the characteristic of resilience. Otherwise she is servant, mother, grandmother, and friend.
Who inspired her and is she based on anyone you know?
I first wrote about Lilly many years ago, using a pet name of Dolly. She is referred to in the play The Steward of Christendom as her father’s favorite daughter, and as the youngest and the prettiest of the three daughters. Her mother died in giving birth to her. I have been thinking about her for many years and hoped to build the confidence as it were to follow her to America. She is not truly based on anyone, being very much fictional in the actual story, but I did have a great aunt that seemingly fled to America in the terrible circumstances during the Irish war of independence. In the real story, which may also be not quite true, or not untrue let us say, she fled with her fiancée and another of her brothers. The two men for some reason had been under a death sentence from the old IRA. This is a well-buried family secret and even now I know only tiny hints of it. But seemingly one of these men, probably my great uncle, was eventually gunned down on a street in Chicago. Nevertheless, the one time as a little boy that I met ‘Lilly’, she seemed to me the very happiest person I had ever encountered, very pretty even in what were likely her sixties. I remember her outside my father’s house, almost dancing where she stood in the street, full of radiant silent laughter.
Lilly’s life seems largely filled with tragedy and loss. Is she a victim of circumstances or was she in some way responsible for creating her own misfortune?
I think certainly the first, a victim of circumstances, except she does not ‘play the victim’ at any point. There is a moment in the book where she wonders is she responsible for some of what happens. I am anxious for the reader to decide for her!
On Canaan’s Side is largely set in twentieth century America from the 1920s to current day. How did you go about researching the time period and locales to create authenticity?
I read in the usual way a little pyramid of books. I have been interested for decades for instance in the building and the demise of the Ohio Canal, a fabulous feat of engineering built by Irish and Chinese workers, that already was in deep decline by the 1910s. Cleveland has also been an obsession, and I have a wonderful book called the Book of Cleveland produced in the shaken optimism of the early fifties. Also the White House Cook Book was very helpful! I have travelled widely in America and without being sentimental, the elementals and nature of North America always seem to strike in deeply. Tiny things gathered over the years. An ancient cab driver in Washington who told me his father was an Irish American who on his death was discovered to have had two families, obviously one white and one black… Wonderful things that set me thinking, thinking… The four thousand miles I hitched in 1974 as an amazed young Irishman of 17… That Van Gogh self-portrait in Chicago… The astonishing cleanliness of everything in fifties photographs… All the lost worlds of America, as multiple as the lost worlds of Ireland, and they are legion.
In your last novel, The Secret Scripture, the heroine was a 100-year-old woman with a complex life. What is your technique and inspiration for creating such convincing characters of the opposite gender and of an older age?
I wait a long long time for the voice of the character to grow inside to a sufficient degree that their existence is more vivid during the writing of the book than my own. I more or less believe that character lives inside the syntax of sentences, that every person not only has an individual soul but an individual and unique birdsong, a way of expressing themselves. So I wait for that. I have to forget I am a man and 55, in the mountains of Wicklow, and be Roseanne or Lilly for a season!
How are Joe, Ed, and Bill connected to Lilly and what were their fates?
Joe Kinderman is Lilly’s husband, although she also refers to Tadg Bere as her husband, though Tadg did not live long enough for the actual ceremony. So Joe is her first/second husband. Ed is her son by Joe, and Bill is her grandson. Both of them were soldiers in the US army, just as Lilly’s brother Willie was a soldier in the First World War. Indeed Joe Kinderman, like Tadg and Lilly’s father, was a policeman. Their fates…. I would love the reader to find out for themselves. But the fate of Bill was the deepest cause of the book. I had a great friend called Margaret Synge, then in her eighties, whose own grandson came back from the war in Afghanistan, and very very sadly took his life, although, as she said, he was paradoxically ‘full of life’. Margaret said to me, ‘why didn’t He take me instead? I am ready to go.’ It was the most profoundly moving thing I have ever heard in my life. And it is with a moment like that, in another time and another country that On Canaan’s Side begins.
What is the thinking behind telling Lilly’s story over the course of seventeen days with each chapter title counting the days without Bill?
As I was writing the book I knew there was a tension between Lilly’s wish to tell her story and that other imperative, the death of her grandson, and what she wanted to do about that. I was interested in the fact that she was sitting down every day to begin again, take up the thread. I envied her a little, being able to complete her book in 17 days! But I was always aware she wouldn’t linger long, at least in the writing of it. She was to me like a bird in the garden, and I was being very careful not to make a sudden movement, and scare her away. You cannot put the bird back in the garden, or the lily back in the bowl. I was always very grateful that she was still there. 17 times grateful. But I can still sense her in my workroom, as I write this. Writing for myself. Come back, Lilly.
What is the ultimate message or lesson that you would like the reader to take away from On Canaan’s Side?
That the world is an infinitely strange place, which we visit briefly, both to fall in love with it and endure it, and delight in it, and to suffer sometimes beyond the capacity of the human heart. That to have lived a life here is a kind of ultimate achievement in itself. That the sorrows of others are often deeply deeply hidden from us, but are still there. That maybe the seeming ‘old’ have the most urgent and necessary messages for us, that will solve the riddle and lose the knot, but that sometimes we forget to retrieve.
But I would also like the reader to know far more, and better, about it than myself, as readers always do.
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