Thursday, October 06, 2011

What We're Reading: On Canaan's Side



On Canaan’s Side
by Sebastian Barry

This is the Irish writer Sebastian Barry’s most recent novel, his fifth since The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty in 1999. Barry began his writing career as a playwright; he has also written several books of poetry. On Canaan’s Side visits the fictional Dunne family once again. This is the story of Lilly Dunne, whose sister we met in Barry’s novel, Annie Dunne. Their brother, the young soldier Willie Dunne, was the protagonist of the World War I novel, A Long, Long Way, a book that was shortlisted for the Commonwealth’s Man Booker Prize. None of these books are sequels; each novel stands on its own.

In On Canaan’s Side, Lilly Dunne tells us the story of her life in America, the place to which she fled with her intended husband when they were both given a death sentence by partisans fighting for Irish independence early in the 20th century. Her betrothed served as a member of the British sponsored paramilitary police in Ireland and was implicated in the death of several Irish revolutionaries. Lilly is eighty nine years old as she writes down the tragic and frightening events of her remarkable life in America, a life punctuated by the major historical events of the century, a life that seems to take on an epic proportion in that association.

This is a sad and beautiful book. Like Barry’s other work, the vision of human life is one that is deeply tragic. The terrible trials that beset his characters are ones in which particular historical events are merely contingent, the contemporary guise of powerful forces that prey by happenstance eternally on mankind. His characters are largely innocent of the fate that is brought down upon them. It is a redeeming quality of their character that they are resilient, that they endure, and that there abides with them a sense of some sort of ameliorating mystery and beauty in the world.

Barry is one of a group of young Irish writers that came to my attention late in the last century, a group that included Michael Collins, Colm Toibin, and Colum McCann. There are several qualities as writers they share. They have an extraordinary command of English prose. Their works display a remarkable quality of sympathy, a broad experience and tolerance of human nature that allows for the creation of complex and fully realized fictional characters. There is of course, as well, a shared dark view I suppose of human life and its trials. But perhaps what makes their writing especially powerful is that the story they choose to tell so often seems to be one that looks at a lifetime in its entirety. The characters tell us a narrative history of their life usually, or sometimes tell us about a focused period of time that is enriched by memory or epilogue. These writers understand that there is behind all stories one fundamental story that interests us most. It is not an epic of the beginning and end of the world, of genesis and apocalypse, or a tale of the history of events on a great stage. It is the story of our own life, the one in which we are always seeking from the narrative some sense and meaning. Such an understanding we seem most able to approach through reading the real or fictive creation of the life of another.

To such a project Barry’s various skills in poetry and playwriting enable him to produce fictional works that are structured and dramatic, like a play might be, but also to write in a prose style that is poetic, accomplished and extraordinarily beautiful. His similes are poised and apposite, and his descriptive passages are often a marvel of rhythm and meter. One in particular, of a ride on a rollercoaster is a tour de force, in which one feels a certain joy in just riding along with the prose as it rises and plunges. There is a thrill in the mastery, in just watching someone write like this simply because they can. In, America, Canaan, seems hardly a promised land for Lilly Dunne, but we come to understand through the way this story is told that the title is not meant to be simply ironic. In Canaan we may not get a land of milk and honey, but we get a story that is our own, and the chance to tell it.




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