Thursday 25 August 2011

'there is a price for everything'

On Canaan's Side
by Sebastian Barry

Sebastian Barry has been something of a Booker bridesmaid, short-listed for both The Secret Scripture and A Long, Long Way but yet to scoop the prize itself. He's been at least long-listed again for this latest novel which follows the fortunes, and otherwise, of another of the Dunne family and only time will tell whether this is the one that brings the prize home (all this flirting with authors like Barry and Barnes leads you to think that it's only a matter of time). Barry remains the only author to have reduced me to tears, the final pages of A Long Long Way being read through eyes that refused to stop weeping despite my deep, manly breaths and furious wipes with the back of an increasingly wet hand. He is unafraid of wearing his heart on his sleeve, unashamedly sentimental, but always prepared to examine frankly a life filled with distress and pain as well as love and laughter (I'm in danger of sounding like the lyrics to Aussie soap Sons and Daughters there). That said, there was something about the plot twist at the end of The Secret Scripture that really rankled; it was too neat, too implausible and, it seemed to me, unnecessary, stopping a good book being great. Before beginning the new book I was already aware that there was something similar in it too, a fact that had me worried from the outset as well as of course wondering as I read if I could work out what it was. Not the best way to read a book for sure.

On Canaan's Side is narrated by Lily Bere, daughter of Thomas Dunne (from his play The Steward of Christendom), sister to Willie Dunne (from A Long Long Way) and Annie Dunne (from, erm . . . Annie Dunne). I'm being a bit flippant but actually the cumulative effect of Barry's focus on family groups means that, for those who have already some or all of his previous work, there is an immediate familiarity at the beginning of a new book. I already knew something of Lily's childhood so that even the innocent mention of her brother's name in the opening pages reminded me of everything that had caused those tears years ago. As she recounts the feeling that something of her brother had been lost in the trenches and battlefields of France and her memories of how he would appear suddenly in their house (none other than Dublin Castle) whilst on leave 'dressed in shadows, disguised by the thin dust of terror he carried on him', how could I not feel the prickle of those tears once again?

So, read as part of a body of work, there is something undeniably powerful from the outset but for anyone coming to this novel afresh, with no knowledge of Barry's other work there is still something immediately involving. The first chapter has been headed by Lily as 'First Day Without Bill', her first words 'Bill is gone.' And then the question, 'What is the sound of an eighty-nine-year old heart breaking?' Bill is her grandson, who returned from war in the Gulf only to take his own life, the pain of surviving a child doubled by another generation passed. Lily has decided to take her own life too but not before setting down her story, an extraordinary tale of flight, disappearance, love realised too late, and sorrow upon sorrow. As I mentioned we are thrown right into it emotionally, even her happiest memories are tinged with a certain pain or as she far more poetically puts it, 'I am dwelling on things I love, even if a measure of tragedy is stitched into everything, if you follow the thread long enough.'

Yet I will confess there is a certain pleasure in this. I scratch away at the Formica table, coming down the pages of this account book with my pencil. I seem to see everyone and everything I write. I am able in some strange way to greet my father again. I would like say to him, Papa, I do not know where you are buried, I am sorry.

The Dunne family experience is that of those who remained loyal to the Crown at exactly the wrong moment in Ireland's history; fighting with the King's troops to earn a victory in Europe that would not be celebrated back at home. For Lily, allied with her sweetheart Tadg Bere, who joined the Black and Tans after his time at the front line, the shifting politics of Ireland finds them both with a contract out on them and fleeing for the refuge 'on Canaan's side.' It is a measure of the sorrow to come that Lilly looking back at that moment can think that, 'Perhaps in that moment, as Ireland stirred like a great creature in the sea, and altered her position, we should all have been taken out and shot, as a sort of kindness, a neatness.' Their first experience of America is of course New York and for this young Irish girl a shock to the senses.
How were the ladders long enough to get bricks up so high? And every road in spate, with a flood of angry cabs, people shouting and calling, plunging along, horns raking through the noise; it was already a kind of assault, a terror you had to learn.
The threat that hangs over them both soon catches up with Tadg in an art gallery in Chicago where he is gunned down and Lily flees to find refuge first in Cleveland. Beginning again from scratch Lily finds a life in service but suffers loss after loss in a period of American history punctuated by conflicts that extort a terrible price from her. As she says much later, 'There is a price for everything, even in a story. How much truer that is in real life.' Lily, it is fair to say, suffers terribly. Her love for Tadg realised only just before he is taken away, love and companionship found once again with policeman Joe only for him to disappear with his secrets just as she becomes pregnant, the combination of hardship and joy in raising her son Ed laid to waste by the effects of his tour in Vietnam, an experience that leaves him 'Like an empty house with a ghost in it,' and finally the same process again with her grandson. Bereavement, disappearance, love and loss; this is a novel that piles on the pain as Lily remembers.

To remember sometimes is a great sorrow, but when the remembering has been done, there comes afterwards a very curious peacefulness. Because you have planted your flag on the summit of sorrow. You have climbed it.

If this is a novel of memory and remembrance ('How strange, how strange. We may be immune to typhoid, tetanus, chicken-pox, diphtheria, but never memory. There is no inoculation against that.') then it is also specifically a novel about not forgetting. Lily remains troubled and pursued by Tadg's killer, 'the man in the shadows', not literally to her knowledge, but the spectre of that still current death sentence leads her to wonder whether 'that man always with me? Was he a sort of secret husband, always creeping along near me, or finding out bits of news about me, and coming to find his prey?' Memory it seems has many ways in which it can attack.

The lyricism and poetry of Barry's writing makes it a pleasure to read as always. There is joy as well as sadness, even moments of humour too, but it is the humility, stoicism and kindness of Lily that warms the heart. And what of those worries about implausible plot points? Well, as he points out in this interview much of his plot is based on real events (and Barry it seems does literally wear his heart on his sleeve, tearful emotion is always at the surface) but there are still a couple of things that made me wince slightly. I thought I had worked out the troublesome moment only to find that there was another before the novel's end. I won't divulge either except to say that the first is a secret that I found hard to believe when I read it in another novel and again here, the second is another example of Barry's recent need to neaten his endings by tying it all up. He's a playwright too after all, structure is everything, so I know where the impulse comes from, I just wish he wouldn't! That's just me though. You will have to decide for yourself how much you can credit or how comfortable you are with such an open heart. Imagine if a stranger where to begin relaying their life story to you, a story that brought tears to their eyes. It would feel uncomfortable I'm sure, but what an extraordinarily brave and generous thing to do.


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