Sebastian Barry, “On Canaan’s Side”

One of the saddest books I’ve ever read. Sad in the sense of lacrimae rerum, “the tears of things,” or “the tears of the world,” a phrase from Virgil’s Aeneid. Sad because it’s about death and waste and loss and the passage of time. Sad because this is how it opens:

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.”

So don’t say you haven’t been warned. From the lovely cover you might think On Canaan’s Side was something like Rules of Civility, a tale of a glamorous past when women wore cloche hats and silk stockings, but the cover is deceptive. What we have here instead is an old woman’s summation of her life, as she prepares to commit suicide.

Dublin Castle, the setting of Lilly's early days

That being said, I did read the whole book, which is a testament to Sebastian Barry. In his narrator, Lilly Bere, he has created someone you feel obliged to follow.She is so honorable, courageous and generous that it would be churlish to leave her before she’s willing to let you go. But Barry also relies on basic human curiosity to keep us reading, and it’s a pretty miraculous feat. Bill, for instance, who is gone — her husband? A lover? A son? No, it turns out Bill is Lilly’s grandson, but you don’t find out why they are so close until quite far into the novel. Why Lilly, an Irish girl, is living in the Hamptons, how she married, whom she married, what was wrong with her husband; all these are mysteries that are answered only gradually. Because the way the novel is structured, Lilly is sitting at her kitchen table in the days after Bill’s death, writing and writing, trying to explain to whoever finds her precisely why she has killed herself. So the story wanders, artfully. And it’s as much a meditation on the nature of memory and aging as it is an account of how a series of wars took away Lilly’s menfolk. (“We may be immune to typhoid, tetanus, chicken-pox, diphtheria, but never memory. There is no inoculation against that.”)

And then there is Lilly’s wonderful way with language, a voice that sings in your ears when you put the book down. I loved this, for instance:

How is it that oftentimes the most important things that happen are at the end of the day composed of chit-chat?

When God is happy I am sure he chats with the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”

The novel’s end is enigmatic. Does Lilly kill herself? Does this process of writing exorcise the pain? It’s not clear, but I did mark this paragraph in the middle of the book, when Lilly is reminded

…of the pact we make with life. That we will see it through and live it according to the length of time bestowed on us. The gift of life, oftentimes so difficult to accept, the horse whose teeth we are so often inclined to inspect.”

Can I wring a shred of hope out of that? Or even an indication that Lilly may be resigned to live out her life? And why does it matter so much? I suppose I just don’t like to believe that Lilly Bere could give up.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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8 Responses to Sebastian Barry, “On Canaan’s Side”

  1. Lisa says:

    This sounds like an amazing book – I’m going to look for a copy.

  2. carolwallace says:

    Yes, it really is good, Lisa. Very powerful. Let me know what you think!

  3. Pingback: Reading and the “Gift Economy” « Book Group of One

  4. Rich Ward says:

    I just finished it and really enjoyed the book but it is very sad. however, i am puzzled by one thing and i started looking for a blog to see if someone could enlighten me about the death of Nimrod Smith.I tend to think that Ed killed him to erase the trail but perhaps I am mistaken. Opinions welcome.

  5. Pingback: Follow my book blog, “Book Group of One” | | Carol Wallace BooksCarol Wallace Books

  6. Ina says:

    Ok, please tell me what happened in the last two pages when she enters her home. I thought perhaps the author was writing metaphorically about a storm that took her life and saved her having to take her own. What do you think—-the bear really through me.

    • carolwallace says:

      Oh, gosh, Ina, I wish I could help but it’s been quite a while since I read this and I don’t remember how it ended! Just read the post and I believe I was as puzzled as you are. Sorry!

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