On Canaan's Side: Book summary and reviews of On Canaan's Side by Sebastian Barry

On Canaan's Side

A Novel

By Sebastian Barry

On Canaan's Side
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  • Published in USA  Sep 2011,
    272 pages.

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Book Summary

From the two-time Man Booker shortlisted author of The Secret Scripture comes a magnificent new novel that is the story of the twentieth century in America.

Told in the first person, as a narrative of Lilly Bere's life over seventeen days, On Canaan's Side opens as she mourns the loss of her grandson, Bill. Lilly revisits her past, going back to the moment she was forced to flee Ireland, at the end of the First World War, and continues her tale in America, a world filled with both hope and danger. At once epic and intimate, Lilly's story unfolds as she tries to make sense of the sorrows and troubles of her life and of the people whose lives she has touched. Spanning nearly seven decades, from the Great Depression to World War II and the Vietnam War, it is the heartbreaking story of a woman whose capability to love is enormous, and whose compassion, even for those who have wronged her, is astonishing.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"Barry's skills are evident as he tenderly unspools Lilly's story, with a fine eye for intimate moments, but...the schematic way each additional emotional blow falls relentlessly, tugging at the reader's heartstrings with diminishing force." - Publishers Weekly

"Starred Review. Lilly reveals herself to be a woman of uncommon sense and boundless compassion.A novel to be savored." - Kirkus Reviews

"[A]lthough “a measure of tragedy is stitched into everything,” at its center it is really a story of the profound if not permanent bonds of friendship and love that underpin a tumultuous existence." - Booklist

"With his extraordinary talent for condensing the tangential sorrows and solaces of a life, Barry continues to unpick the threads of Irish history through what Lilly calls “our own little stories, without importance”. His empathy is his most valuable gift." - The Daily Telegraph (UK)

"This concentration on isolating tiny fragments of experience and apprehension makes for an intense and immersive read, one in which brutal events are cast in a diffuse light that gives them an almost mythic quality. But the narrative's dreamlike qualities do not eclipse Barry's determination to scrutinise the less travelled byways of history and to give a voice to their buffeted, battered but nonetheless enduring victims." - The Guardian (UK)

"[T]his shifting rhythm unbalances the book. Barry's core theme, with the loyalist family bereft as "all the world [her father] knew had gone on fire", lends the early sections a scorching passion. ... Yet too much then rattles by too fast: great sorrow, little room." - The Independent (UK)

"Memories aren't always connected by reason, but Barry proves more adept than most at twisting their threads together with narrative panache." - The Scotsman

"The novel is an elegy, not just for the dead victims of America's self-styled and self-imposed "policing" of the world, but also an elegy for Ireland's ability to tear itself apart across the generations." - The Independent (Ireland)

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Reader Reviews

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Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Cloggie Downunder
wonderful story beautifully written
On Canaan’s Side is the 7th novel by Irish author Sebastian Barry and is, deservedly, winner of the 2012 Walter Scott Prize. It was also long-listed for the 2011 Man Booker Prize. Lilly Bere (whom fans of Barry’s work will recognise as the youngest daughter of Thomas Dunne from The Steward Of Christendom, sister of Willie, Maud and Annie Dunne) writes, over the seventeen days since she has buried her beloved and troubled grandson, Bill, her thoughts about her life of almost ninety years. Through Lilly’s reminiscences, we learn of her childhood in Ireland, her escape to America with her fiancé Tadg, her marriage to, and abandonment by the mysterious Joe, and the raising her son Ed and her grandson Bill. Lilly encounters hardship, fear, great loss and heartbreak, but also incredible generosity, kindness and small victories. Despite intimacies and closeness, Lilly is not allowed to really know the significant men in her life (Thomas, Tadg, Joe, Ed, Bill and Mr Nolan), often until it was far too late, if at all, yet she shows grace, courage, an enormous capacity for forgiveness and rejects opportunities for revenge. With his prose, some of it achingly beautiful, Barry evokes atmosphere, mood and emotion, and comments on the unspoken tragedies of wars and rebellions. Some favourite quotes: “I wonder if I were to have an X-ray at the little hospital, would the machine see my grief? Is it like a rust, a rheum about the heart?” “…. beamed out a smile as good as the Wicklow lighthouse when at last it turns its great arc towards you.” “We may be immune to typhoid, tetanus, chicken pox, diphtheria, but never memory. There is no inoculation against that.” “The gift of life, oftentimes so difficult to accept, the horse whose teeth we are so often inclined to inspect.” “To remember sometimes is a great sorrow, but when the remembering has been done, there comes afterward a very curious peacefulness. Because you have planted your flag on the summit of sorrow. You have climbed it.” A wonderful story, beautifully written.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Mij Woodward
Blown Away
Stunning, captivating, fascinating.

Readers who enjoy historical fiction will likely love this book.

Readers who identify with stories of loss will be grateful for this book.

I want to write more about why I loved this book, but I am just speechless.

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Author Information

Sebastian Barry Author Biography

Photo: Jerry Bauer

Sebastian Barry was born in Dublin in 1955 and educated at Trinity College, Dublin. Academically, he has held posts as an Honorary Fellow in Writing at the University of Iowa (1984) and Writer Fellow at Trinity College, Dublin (1995-6). His early plays include Boss Grady's Boys (1990) and The Steward of Christendom (1995), Our Lady of Sligo (1998) and Hinterland (2002). Whistling Psyche (2004), and The Pride of Parnell Street (2007), are two interweaving monologues. His latest play is Tales of Ballycumber (2009).

Barry has also written poetry, including the collections The Water-Colourist (1983) and Fanny Hawke Goes to the Mainland Forever (1989); a novel for children, Elsewhere: the Adventures of Belemus (1985); and short novels, Time Out of Mind/Strappado Square (1983). His ...

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