A tragic and absurd narrative that verges on the point of parody

2011-11-16 00:00

THIS is a beautifully written book. It’s also not a very good one.

Sebastian Barry has been twice nominated for the Booker, for A Long, Long Way and The Secret Scripture, the­ ­latter winning several other awards, including the 2008 Costa Book of the Year. With On Canaan’s Side, he appears to have attempted the Great Irish Misery Novel. “A measure of tragedy is stitched into everything, if you follow the thread long enough,” remarks the narrator, 89-year-old Lilly Bere, at one point. There is far more than a measure here.

Lilly tells her story in flashback while mourning the suicide of her grandson following his return from the first Iraq War. Wars and rumours of wars prove to be the connecting thread of her life: her brother Willie is killed in World War 1 while she and her Black and Tan policeman fiancé flee to the United States — ‘On Canaan’s Side’ — after being targetted with a death warrant by the IRA. Tragedy soon tracks them down to the promised land and as the century progresses, various friends and relatives come to violent ends. As tragedy follows tragedy (added to coincidences and chance meetings that would make even John Buchan blush), Barry’s novel veers dangerously close to parody.

While there’s no doubting the lyrical, poetic images Barry conjures up via Lilly’s lilting Irish voice, there’s also no avoiding the absurdity of the narrative.

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