‘On Canaan’s Side’ by Sebastian Barry

On Canaan's SidestarstarstarNot that I need one, but there are two reasons why I read this book. A friend recommended it, and I plan to attend a literary festival in London at the end of the month where Sebastian Barry will speak. It’s his new book that the Irish storyteller will be talking about, but since my friend suggested this one, I decided to start with an earlier one.

For the fun of it I read a few reviews of ‘On Canaan’s Side’ before I started reading it. One curious comment I remembered as I started reading – the reviewer said that the book was hard to get into but after he’d reached page 30, the story took off. Well, to the page, the reviewer was completely right. After page 30 the story flew off the pages. Barry has a wonderful way with words and his prose is poetic. The flashback style of the book was a bit confusing at first, but when I settled into it, it became comfortable and easy to follow.

Despite being a very Irish novel, the story begins in America with an old woman getting ready to commit suicide. Her thoughts drift back to the time when she was a little girl in Ireland with her father and siblings. Her father, a formidable policeman, is involved in a tragic situation that splits the family apart. Lilly flees to America with her boyfriend Tadg Bere. But the safety they had hoped for in the new land, on Canaan’s side, is not to be. Irish violence follows them and ripples through consecutive generations. The promised land is not all it was hoped to be.

The novel is beautifully crafted without being overwritten. One reviewer called Barry’s lyricism a “seemingly endless series of potent and moving images” but simply. There’s an economy of words in the descriptions as well as a compelling plot. The scope of the novel is also impressive. Not only does it deal with Ireland’s troubles, but also America’s, with the assassinations and the civil rights movement, and the Vietnam and Gulf wars. I will definitely look forward to reading Sebastian Barry’s other books, some of which are also about the same Dunne family and look forward to hearing him speak!

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