Book review: ‘On Canaan’s Side,’ by Sebastian Barry

September 16, 2011

In his new novel, “On Canaan’s Side,” the Irish writer Sebastian Barry returns to the case of the fictional Dunne family, Irish loyalists caught on the losing side of the Troubles of 1916-22. Willie Dunne, a young Irish volunteer in the British Army during World War I, is the protagonist of a previous Barry novel, “A Long Long Way” (2005), which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Willie’s father, chief superintendent of the Dublin Metropolitan Police under the British regime, is the tragic hero of Barry’s most celebrated play, “The Steward of Christendom” (1995).

Now, Barry is telling the tale of Willie’s sister, Lilly Bere, who in her 80s describes a lifetime spent “on Canaan’s side” — in America, that is.

Lilly came of age in Ireland during the Troubles that started with the blood sacrifice of the Easter Rising in 1916 and culminated in the black farce of civil war. She married Tadg Bere, a pal of her brother’s and a veteran of the trenches who served in the “Black and Tans,” those infamous irregulars used by the British in the waning days of their rule. When neighbors tip off Lilly’s ex-policeman father that Republican gunmen plan to murder Lilly and her husband for disloyalty, the pair slip out of Ireland to exile in the United States.

But Irish history and hatred do not let go of their victims so easily. Even in wide-open America, the wounds of the past do not heal. The blame for what went wrong can’t be escaped so easily. Narrow passions and poisons stirred up by the Troubles remember the young couple and track them down as they move from New York to Chicago to Cleveland. And, of course, America has its own tribal hatreds, passions and secrets. Barry knows the Irish aren’t the only people wearing history like a rope around their neck.

Lilly’s son comes of age in time to take part in the Vietnam War. History even gets around to the life of Lilly’s grandson, haunted by the first Iraq war of the early ’90s. By making Lilly’s people victims of just about every war of the 20th century, Barry rams home his point — war is a sickness, and everyone in war is a patient — with a little too much force. The sweep of the storytelling starts to seem contrived, which costs the narrative some credibility.

But Barry is a supple narrator and a virtuoso stylist. Lilly Bere — exile, housemaid, wife, mother, cook, survivor — tells her story in a radiant Irish voice. For example, she remembers her life in Cleveland during the 1930s: “Our little house had a view of the lake, just. You had to crane your neck, and all you saw were factories and jetties, but it was there, the water. The lake had its own aroma, from a hundred ingredients, mixed by the god of that lake. There was great soothing in that smell.”

Barry’s commitment to telling the stories of families like the Dunnes reflects a passion for justice. Real relief comes only in struggling to tell the truth. Barry knows that many Irish, and more Irish Americans, cherish a sentimental version of Ireland’s gnarled history, preferring to ignore that much of the blood shed by the Irish in the 20th century was their own. Violence in 1916-22 left what seem to be permanent scars on the Free State and its successor republic. The most recent Troubles are only paused by the perks and swag that ex-gunmen and extremists are milking from a faux peace in Ulster.

The rarest virtues are those Lilly herself owns, of truth-seeing, truth-telling, forgiveness. Narrating a story of hatred and vengefulness in the voice of a woman resolute in compassion, Barry applies a breadth of vision often absent when nationalists and revolutionaries of any nationality consider the “other,” especially if that “other” happens to be a loyalist of the ancien regime.

Behrens’s second novel, “The O’Briens,” will be published in the spring.

On Sept. 23, Sebastian Barry will be at Politics and Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.

ON CANAAN’S SIDE

By Sebastian Barry

Viking. 256 pp.

$25.95

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