On Canaan's Side by Sebastian BarryReading the Longlist:

A Century in

Seventeen Days

On Canaan's Side
by Sebastian Barry
Review by Sara Sutter

On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry takes place over seventeen days. One day per chapter, the reader is situated with narrator Lilly Bere in the wake of her grandson’s suicide. From this focus, Lilly’s thoughts open up to a family story that spans a century. In seventeen days. What better way to review On Canaan’s Side than in its own sequential yet roaming form?

1. In mourning Lilly Bere is moved to reflect on her life, reveling in all she has loved and survived. “I am dwelling on things I love, even if a measure of tragedy is stitched into everything, if you follow the thread long enough.”

2.  Lilly’s story holds a precise beauty, a confluence of confession, wistfulness and lyric.

3.  “Why am I alive when he is dead? Why did Death take him?” Close to her ninetieth year, Lilly wonders if it is time for her own life to end. “I cannot depart without some effort to account for this despair.”

4.  Lilly’s story begins after World War One, when she is a girl betrothed to a member of the Black and Tans, the regiment responsible for quelling Irish revolt. Her fiancé, Tadg, is doled the death sentence for being a regiment member. He and Lilly flee to America together, leaving her family and Ireland behind.

5.  Figures from Lilly Bere’s family are the subjects of two of Sebastian Barry’s other novels, A Long Long Way (2005) about World War One and the Easter Rising, and The Steward of Christendom (1995).

6.  Lilly and Tadg wander the streets of New York and then Chicago. The immigrant couple do all they can to remake their identities, but fears of being discovered hover in sidewalk shadows.

7.  Lilly oscillates between fear of and love for life in America, but her vision of Chicago as a “glittering Canaan” is short-lived as Tadg is shot and killed in an art museum.

8.  With little time to grieve, danger in America plagues Lilly. She moves throughout the country grateful to be taken in, given work, and befriended.

9.  Barry rarely writes of history head-on. Racial tensions, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War whirl around Lilly. Rather than heavy-handed accounts, historical details are spare and embedded in the story.

10.  Character motivations are unclear until they are discovered, as in the case of Lilly’s second husband, Joe Kinderman, whom she meets in Cleveland. When Joe abandons pregnant Lilly, his whereabouts and identity blur into the larger mystery of America.

11. At a reading of On Canaan’s Side at Powell’s Books in Portland, Barry had to convince an unbelieving audience that he never actually lived in Cleveland.  He purported he was only an expert on the city for two days while writing about it.

12.  Lilly maintains an emotional distance from her tale that allows for curious and precise observation. When Lilly’s grandson, Bill, returns from the first Iraq war, he is the third generation of soldiers she has observed.

13.  In Bill she sees “Something of him was lost in France, buried into the ditches they dug there, so that he would appear in our house in the castle right enough, but dressed in shadows, disguised by the thin dust of terror he carried on him maybe.”

14.  Heaviness of heart is given buoyancy by Lilly’s strength of character: “Tears have a better character cried alone. Pity can sometimes be more wolf than dog.” Where the story might darken or become maudlin, resilience shines through.

15. The novel is a stark portrait of time and memory. The main marks are tragic, yet the vision soars above pain and bitterness.

16. In a short span of time, a passionate recollection of story fragments takes on a sort of mythic quality. The experience is like having a cup of tea in the kitchen of the twentieth century.

17.  On Canaan's Side is a moving and informative read. Barry surveys loss and invents survival. Ω