Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Sebastian Barry's "On Canaan's Side": Book Review

Lilly Bere flees the Irish war for independence with her hunted beau; they hurry in disguise to Chicago. From there, his fate and hers propels this compact but leisurely told narrative rich in mood and depth. Sebastian Barry, as with his plays and earlier novels, draws loosely on his own family's stories to thread into his plots. In "A Long, Long Way", Lilly's brother Willie fights the Great War in Picardy as well as witnesses the Easter Rising back in Dublin; "Annie Dunne" follows into mid-century the situation of her sister, "a hunched unmarriageable girl" according to Lilly. 

Between his countrymen John Banville and Joseph O'Connor in age, Mr. Barry shares the elegant fictional craft of the former and the immersion in Irish American overlaps of the latter storyteller. In this account of one of the Dunnes, less attention to America itself is given than may be supposed from the summary. While the novel takes place largely in American cities, the memories evoked by Lilly over seventeen daily entries at the age of eighty-nine delve more into her own reactions to the action around her than they do her own depictions of the twentieth-century trends and changes another novelist might have highlighted. This inner direction takes Mr. Barry's characters into their own psychological torment and the failure of their hopes rather than an easy grasp of the dreams promised so many whether in Ireland seeking freedom or America promoting liberty. 

As Lilly admits early on in her recollections: "I am dwelling on things I love, even if a measure of tragedy is stitched into everything, if you follow the thread long enough." Certainly the fatalism woven into this novel may weigh it down for those expecting a lighthearted romanticized celebration of a pair of newlywed immigrants who triumph over adversity. Soon, Tadg Bere will be gone, and his wife will flee again to Cleveland. There, she meets her second husband, Joe Kinderman, from the city's police force. His own ambiguities will shadow their relationship, while her son Ed and his son Billy will also confront the complications caused by wars, which in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East keep pulling away those whom she loves and befriends. 

Most of the narrative, told in journal form, depends upon capturing interior states, so when Lilly looks out, the scenes sharpen. Spring in Ohio comes as "the poor huddled trees suddenly like a thousand girls, all gold hair and ribbons, and the rows upon rows of blossom-trees in the streets shook out their colours on the air." 

As for Ireland, unlike her American friends and employers of Hibernian descent, Lilly holds no sentiment: "People love Ireland because they can never know it, like a partner in a successful marriage." This oblique comment shows Mr. Barry's own angular presence, for his novel refuses a straightforward approach to Lilly's perceptions. Instead, "On Canaan's Side" shows what happens after a fugitive crosses over the Jordan, not to find deliverance, but more pursuit from those she thought her trans-Atlantic flight had outrun. 

Therefore, the novel darkens as violence from war, past and recent, reverberates into the lives of those around her. Not everyone she befriends can be trusted. This unease turns her legacy as an arrival in America. 

She moves first to Washington D.C. (with a curious cameo appearance by Martin Luther King), and then to the Hamptons in domestic service to earn her keep. Mr. Barry does not let the Furies off their own race to catch up with Lilly. "The Celestial Handyman tends to let the house fall." Her marriages derail, and as she tries to make ends meet, she cannot help but lapse into gloom. "We ride to our doom, like the cowboys, we surely do." A few pages later, we hear, "as they used to say in Ireland, the devil only comes into good things." 

While this reviewer, as a first-generation Irish American, is not immune to fatalism, Mr. Barry's placement of its constant weight upon Lilly may weary readers wishing for levity within this well-told but stoically endured account of the past near-century. Her surname may be symbolic of the Easter lily, the signifier of hope for the new Irish republic amidst the war that drove her away from it, and of "The Old Woman of Beare", a medieval Irish lament told by one once a lovely lady, now an abandoned crone. Certainly this recent American era has not lacked for woe, but Lilly's eloquent reveries do not inspire much relief from the darker shades that hover over nearly every page of the long life she summons up on paper one last time. 

That being said, as with John Banville, a daunting fictional representation of a tormented, lonely struggle by one in recollection struggling to make sense out of chaos and to impose order upon chance does make for a rewarding if sobering experience. As with Joseph O'Connor, the inherent interest in an immigrant's encounter with America also enriches this narrative, even if unlike Mr. O'Connor, the energy of the Irish entry into a new continent is muffled by domestic settings and introspective concentration. Mr. Banville often rescues wandering plots in the final sections of his novels; similarly, Mr. Barry revives Lilly's reflections for one final burst of wonder. 

Its climactic pages glow with wonder and terror. They reach a catharsis of prose poetry as they mingle dramatically, as "the sun was falling away under the table of the world, like a drinking man." This last scene turns a bravura performance reminiscent of Samuel Beckett's torrents of frank existential dazzle. Here, Mr. Barry bestows as a merciful creator his long-suffering heroine with her final reward.

(Featured 9-8-11 at New York Journal of Books.)

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