On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry

Canaan, the bible says, would be a land flowing with milk and honey, full of large and flourishing cities, and houses and cisterns the new inhabitants didn’t have to build. But it’s continued possession would only come about through violence, and though it offered the prospect of a new start, that didn’t mean that old frailties wouldn’t reassert themselves.

Sebastian Barry’s novel brings the Canaan story into our times. This is the story of DNA, how we try to escape its determinism but it never leaves, repeating itself and revealing itself in surprising and beautiful and disturbing ways. It is the story of a century of American history told through the eyes of a Wicklow woman, the daughter of a crown police man, forced from her country and her family because of her Irish suitor’s  job – a British soldier in the Great War who joins the Black and Tans on his return. Lilly Bere writes the memories of her long life, which was consistently touched by tragedy throughout it’s course, but which also knew gentle goodness.

It’s the story of how Ireland’s violent conflict follows her to her new and foreign home of which she says, ‘if this country was a marriage between hope and suffering, then one of the partners in the marriage upped and left mysteriously. Or in some great fire, hope was burned off, and suffering was discovered to be indestructible’. Three great wars leave their tragic marks on her, WW1, Vietnam and the first Gulf War. Each conflict diminishes her in some way. Her son returns from Vietnam but the war never leaves him, and Lilly writes of him that ‘he existed in a parsimonious place. He had only the farthings and pence of love to give.’

Yet her life was also touched by great kindnesses and goodness and in America she learns ‘everything is possible. Everything is both true and untrue in the same breath.’ Her American husband Joe, loves her deeply but remains a mystery, and leaves a permanent and strange generational imprint. Her benefactor Mrs Wolahan is both distant by virtue of generational wealth yet also her closest and most consistent relationship. Mr Nolan is also two things at once, but to tell you how would spoil the ending.

And through it all she is blessed with great and abiding friendships. Everybody is new here, and though some escape their histories, some pay penance, some make peace and some, like Lilly, must endure. Her new friends reflect the diversity of America, the Greek shopkeeper, the Italian policeman and his sister, the wealthy socialite who employs her and provides a home, the wonderful black servant girl who teaches her joy and beauty in the midst of grinding poverty and rigid segregation.

What has she learned at the end of what the reader might see as a rich life? Well, ‘I notice again in the writing of this confession that here is nothing called long-ago after all. When things are summoned up, it is all present time, pure and simple. So that, much to my surprise, people I have loved are allowed to live again. What it allows them I don’t know. I have been happy now and then in the last two weeks, the special happiness that is offered from the hand of sorrow.’

That might appear to be a peculiarly Irish form of melancholic endurance, but it’s more than that. It’s the human capacity to transcend sorrow and the apparent imperatives of painful histories. Mr Eugenides, the Greek shopkeeper says towards the end of the novel, ‘you will be sorry and weary for a long time.   Believe me, Mrs Bere, I do know. My own father was lost in the fighting in the Pelopponnese, ah, ah, many years, many years ago. Sorrow, sorrow! The sorrow of countries, and our own private souls. Never grows lighter’.

But the novel does afford hope. Personal sorrows though privately experienced are the common lot of all humanity. The mere fact of acknowledging such a reality is part of the process of healing. The presence of good love and abiding friendships can soften the blow, without necessarily shortening its lifespan. National pain is also international. Irish, Greek and Italian pain, racism in the US, and the abiding tragedy of native American experience. And the shared legacy of war, American, Vietnamese, iraqi and yes, British and Irish.

Al of this accessible through the eyes of a simple rural Wicklow girl. In her final days she has learned the ‘example of the enormous effect of courtesy brought to the act of remembrance’, (isn’t that a lovely phrase?). Mr Dillinger, a well connected artist of her acquaintance, she says, ‘brought her back to 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.’

The are moments when the story is a little far-fetched, but Barry’s language redeems it. I loved his description of a sunset as ‘the sun falling away under the table of the world, like a drinking man.’

I read this novel in the week of the Queen’s Jubilee visit to Northern Ireland and amidst all the speculation about handshakes. A simple mutual clasp, a courteous remembrance, which gathered into its hold all of our troubled history of families and nations. Demonstrating for us that in the end, the gift of life is too precious to spend frivolously, or take callously, or hollow out though the endless reciting of ancient grievances, and offering the possibility that we can live and grow within our pain and, with time, perhaps even transcend it.

A great read.

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