'On Canaan's Side': An Irish immigrant reflects on life's losses

Sebastian Barry: His Lilly Bere has known unremitting loss.
Sebastian Barry: His Lilly Bere has known unremitting loss. (LISA BROWNLEE)
Posted: October 08, 2011

On Canaan's Side

By Sebastian Barry

Viking. 256 pp. $25.95


Reviewed by John Brumfield


Lilly Bere has decided to end her life after the violent death of her Army veteran grandson, recently returned from the first Gulf War. At 89, after a life whose leitmotif has been unremitting loss, she reasons, "It is only one last bit of life that I undo. Lord, it is nothing, absolutely nothing. A year or two."

But before doing so, she decides on a final bit of stock-taking - what she refers to as her "strange confession" - that takes the form of 17 daily journal entries of richly detailed, often cinematic, reminiscence that jump cuts with the present and her dwindling number of friends. Stick around, though. This is no self-indulgent apologia, and Irish writer Sebastian Barry makes the fine distinction between sentiment and sentimentality with a deft hand.

A reluctant Irish immigrant, Lilly arrives in the United States with her fiance in the 1920s. They're on the lam from the Irish Republican Army, which has issued a death sentence on her man for being part of the hated Black and Tans, whose royal mandate was to suppress Irish revolution. Finding no kin in New York, they play out their days and nights living vigilantly in Chicago, where both the real and imagined shadows of IRA sympathizers loom constantly. A friendship with the not-yet-famous Armenian immigrant painter Arshile Gorky leads dramatically to one of the first of Lilly's many losses - one that will chime chillingly with another toward the end of this fine novel. And it means Lilly must be on the move again.

The kindness of strangers leads to better luck than that of distant relatives as Lilly's peregrinations take her eastward to Cleveland, where she marries, is abandoned by her husband, and has a child. She then moves to Washington, D.C., and finally to Long Island, where she finds her niche and her nest cooking meals for a wealthy Irish American family. She would remain there for the duration of her long life and form a bond with her loving but no-nonsense employer that allowed her the security so elusive in her earlier immigrant years.

While the theme of loss is ever present, the overall tone of the book is far from morose. The sheer liveliness of Barry's writing, his sure handling of the wide variety of characters and their dialogue, and the resilient Lilly herself all ensure that the novel doesn't bog down in her sorrows.

While Barry maintains his own confident style, sly echoes of James Joyce are heard here and there. It must be an occupational hazard for Irish writers, but in this case it's done with a very light touch. There's a two-page description by Lilly of a roller-coaster ride and her second-by-second reactions to it that might have been set down by Molly Bloom herself were she not rhapsodizing in her soliloquy about another sort of roller-coaster ride. I must admit, though, that I had to put the book down for a minute while letting the image of Joyce, too, on a roller-coaster play out. In any case, it's hard to imagine even the great Jimmy topping this delightful romp through the excited psyche of a careworn immigrant unexpectedly allowed a brief moment of unfettered pleasure.

With all the quiet interiority and the equanimity with which events are recalled here, it's easy to overlook how exciting those events were. The "plot" is full of surprises - many shocking. War, single parenthood, betrayal, unexpected acts of compassion, death too early - or in at least one case, too late - and race relations are all threads in the tapestry of Lilly's life. Accommodations must be made at every turn and Lilly makes them, all the while maintaining her own moral poise.

Deservedly short-listed twice previously for the Man Booker prize, Barry in his current offering maintains, and at times exceeds, the high level of finely wrought empathy attained in those award nominees, The Secret Scripture and A Long Long Way. And as in those two novels, the play of history as it most intimately affects individual lives in such an infinite variety of ways is on exquisitely touching display.


John Brumfield is a member of The Inquirer's staff. Contact him at jbrumfield@phillynews.com.

 

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