On Canaan’s Side. Sebastian Barry Faber and Faber, £13.99; Kindle £9.35
SELF-PRAISE may be no praise but when a quietly-spoken Sebastian Barry suddenly rattles the tea-sippers in a sedate hotel drawing room with an eruption of laughter at a scene from his own latest novel, it is a forgivable offence.
Not only is the scene a beautifully observed moment of accidental humour in a setting of deep sorrow, but Barry doesn’t seem able to credit himself with orchestrating it or creating the characters who play it out.
As if an outsider in his own work, he stresses how grateful he is that the book came along, that the characters allowed him to watch them go about their business and that the protagonist told her story and guided him as he wrote it down.
“I’ve been working for 34 years and when you’ve been working for a long time, you’re just so happy to have a book turn up,” he says. “It’s like a rare bird coming down on to the lawn and you were there to see it.”
But despite his portrayal of himself as conduit for rather than creator of the story of Lilly Bere in On Canaan’s Side, he is very much the insider.
As with many of his protagonists, Lilly comes from real life, inspired both by his great-aunt Lilly Dunne who, like her fictional namesake, was forced to flee Ireland for America in the troubled 1920s; and by a late dear friend left bereft by the suicide of her soldier grandson after his return from Afghanistan.
“The book partly came out of a remark from a friend who was in her 80s like Lilly,” he explains.
“Her grandson had been in the Irish Guards and he came back from Afghanistan full of plans for his future and then suddenly he inexplicably and tragically took his own life.
“She said to me: ‘Why didn’t He [meaning God] take me? I was ready to go’. And that was such an incredibly brave and beautiful thing to say. I knew that she would have given her own life in exchange for his.”
On Canaan’s Side takes place over the 17 days following the suicide of Lilly’s grandson Bill, after his return from the Gulf War.
The effect of war on those who serve is a theme Barry has explored before, most specifically in his 2005 Man Booker shortlisted novel, A Long Long Way, the hero of which is Lilly’s brother Willie Dunne, who comes home on leave from the First World War a ragged man.
Lilly recalls his return: “Something of him was lost in France, buried into the ditches.”
Later she thinks of the struggles of her own son after Vietnam. “I don’t know what broke in him. Plenty of things maybe. Wires burned up in him, and then he couldn’t get a signal on whatever sort of radio he was. Or send one out.”
As father of two boys, Merlin, 18, who has a twin sister, Coral, and Toby, 14, the thought of perpetual wars chills him.
“If I was an American,” he begins, shaking his head. “How is it that part of your love of country involves offering your sons up — and daughters too — to these wars, or that one might even feel that it is the right thing to do?
“These are feelings that are so unimaginable to us as Irish people but worth looking at because great changes are afoot in the world and we don’t know where we’re going to be in 10 years.”
In On Canaan’s Side, 89-year-old Lilly can’t bear the thought of another year, never mind 10, and it quickly becomes apparent that she is putting pen to paper to recount the details of her life in an attempt to explain why she has come to the decision to end it.
Her writing sweeps through 70 years of history beginning with her childhood within the walls of Dublin Castle where her father, who first appears in Barry’s 1995 play, The Steward of Christendom, is a senior officer in the Dublin Metropolitan Police in the years before 1916.
Forced to flee to America when her Black and Tan fiance’s part in repelling an ambush earns a death warrant on both their heads, she begins a struggle to make a life amidst extraordinary personal drama and profound political and social change.
The title of the book is taken from the words of a television presenter who informed the American people that Martin Luther King was dead “on Canaan’s side”. Dr King had used Canaan, the promised land of Biblical reference, as a symbol of the free and just America he dreamed of.
But despite the references to momentous events, history hangs lightly on this tale, never obscuring the woman at its core.
Lilly herself has little sense of the epochal times she witnesses. It is simply her life. Besides, she presumes herself to be insignificant. “What is the sound of an 89-year-old heart breaking?” she wonders. “Not much more than silence.”
Yet as her writing is punctuated by the arrival of friends and neighbours, we see her through their eyes and realise the central role she plays in their hearts.
It is also from these encounters that the lighter moments come — including the one that had Barry upsetting teacups where Lilly watches a spat between old friends, realising she benefits more from the entertainment value of their sparring than from their well-worn words of sympathy.
For while this is often a sad book, it is never gloomy, and Barry’s way with words alone makes it impossible not to feel lifted.
Lilly pictures her father’s old home in rural Wicklow (where Barry, a Dubliner, now lives), as a place “where nature ran out of patience with humanity, and struck out wild and pagan”.
She describes the aftermath of bereavement: “We did our best to rub two sticks of life together to make a small fire to live by.”
She delights in the memory of a special day: “My heart lifted like a pheasant from scrub, as if utterly surprised and alarmed by this beauty.”
Given that Barry’s last two novels made the Man Booker shortlist, one of them, The Secret Scripture, winning the 2008 Costa, it is not surprising to see this one, probably an even greater accomplishment, making the long-list.
Barry is honest about the appeal of the awards circuit. “Book-writing is boxing. You might as well box for the nicest belt.”
But he’s had black eyes and a broken nose too and says the real reward is just getting the chance of another fight.
As Lilly continues her reminiscences, she emerges as another fighter and though she remains steadfast in her intentions, the reader can’t help but question if she will really end her life.
Barry didn’t decide at the outset how the book would end — he wouldn’t dream of telling his rare bird which way to fly.
“It is her writing the book so there is a point where she will leave the story alone and I have to leave her with that.
“As she gives herself a book she gives me a book so I’m not going to be ungrateful and second-guess her.”