Sunday, 25 September 2011

Booker Longlist: On Canaan's Side

Sebastian Barry continues his poetically inflected investigation into the multiple and contradictory stories of the Dunne family in this his latest novel. Grief, separation and trauma have marked the lives of this family, from the Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, Annie Dunne, through what I consider to be still his best novel A Long Long Way, his play The Steward of Christendom and  his prize-winning novel The Secret Scripture, but Barry treats his subject with great compassion and a lightness of touch that keeps us as absorbed by his stories as if they were our own. The stories of the Dunne family are both particular and exemplary, telling the larger historical narrative through the story of the family. The redeeming factor in all the stories is love. It is love that keeps the heart beating, love that ushers in forgiveness, love that furnishes the resources to reinvent a life, even in exile.

This novel tells the story of Lilly Bere, at the very end of her life, reflecting on its considerable heartbreak and losses. Although in the process of coming to terms with the recent suicide of her grandson, Lilly retains an endearing quality of practical optimism. She is immune to self-pity in spite of the long sequence of shocking events which have punctuated her life, right from her birth which occasioned the death of her mother. For just as surely as she is marked by grief, thanks to the poetic cadences of her language, Lilly inhabits grace. Her reflections upon the events of her life are lit by Barry's particular lyricism. To her he gives the gift of metaphor, so that as all she loves falls away, the way she comprehends her loss is through a splendid, distinctive poetry. This has the effect of rendering the narrative both disquieting and urgent. There is a steady incandescence to Barry's writing, a valedictory quality which pleads mercy. He manages to pull off an intriguing, seductive balance between despair and plenitude: blighted content and dazzling form.

The bulk of Lilly's story is told in America, on Canaan's side (the promised land), and it is typical of Barry's writing that even the title carries with it the suggestion of waters crossed, and temporary anchorage. Barry honours history for the distances it reflects, and for the way it continues to empty itself into the present. All the major events of the twentieth century are here, but their roar and flood are secondary in their intensity to the deep and turbulent waters of Lilly's own life. For Barry the personal is the political, and politics is only meaningful for the way in which it deluges ordinary life. Beautiful, moving and elegiac.

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