On Canaan's Side by Sebastian Barry

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On Canaan's Side by Sebastian Barry

Buy On Canaan's Side by Sebastian Barry at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com

Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: The publishers claim this book is 'at once epic and intimate' and for once, this cliche is appropriate. The story of an 89 year old Irish-American recalling her eventful life after the death of her grandson. Full of exquisite writing and compassion, this is a remarkable story from a believable narrator to whom unbelievable things have happened.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 272 Date: August 2011
Publisher: Faber & Faber
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0571226535

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Each chapter of 'On Cannan's Side' represents a day after the death of the narrator, Lilly Bere's, grandson, Bill. Initially the reader is bombarded by a stream of half thoughts but soon Lilly begins to outline her own life story from being the daughter of a police officer in Ireland at the end of the First World War, her subsequent flight to the USA, to ultimately living in retirement as a domestic cook to a wealthy American. It's a remarkable story, full of tragic events, but for all its hardships, Lilly is from a time when such things are to be endured rather than dwelt on.

If you are looking for a book with a fast plot line, then this isn't for you. However, if you enjoy sumptuous prose and compassionate stories then this is an absolute joy to read. The opening lines, Bill is gone. What is the sound of an eighty-nine-year-old heart breaking? give you a strong sense of the beauty of the prose and the sadness of the narrator's life. I was hooked from that point on.

Lilly and her beau (Lilly is of an age where she might indeed use such a term) are forced to flee Ireland and to disguise their identities on arriving in the US. Indeed, poor Lilly doesn't have a great track record with her choice of male friends it turns out, not least because she is so keen to hide her own past that she is often blind to the fact that the men she encounters are usually hiding something of their own, and often this is far more damaging than Lilly's own secrets. The loss of her grandson is the final straw though. Now, she's ready to tell her story.

What is striking is the apparent authenticity of the narrator's voice. She's not just any elderly lady, but her voice is completely consistent with her past and her perceived status in life. Arguably this comes as a cost in that although we get her life story, we don't always get much of her character, but the point is that is who she is. She is of a time when problems were kept private and the difficulties of life were to be endured.

As with all good literary fiction, there are deeper questions and issues here. Various relatives fight in a series of wars (World Wars One and Two, Vietnam and the Gulf) all in the name of their country. But to what extent do their countries represent their interests? Moreover, while the USA is the land of Canaan of the title, where identities can be changed, no one ever escapes where they came from in life.

While the experiences of Lilly's life are pretty horrific, and there's plenty of sadness in her life, it's not a depressing read as such. Yes, you feel for her, but she often recalls the moments of happiness in her life. She is often a victim, but never sees herself as such.

The most striking thing about the book though is the quality of the writing. It's unmistakably 'Irish literary fiction', full of beautiful descriptions and stunning use of the language. You might feel that some of the descriptions slow down the pace of the book, but when they are that good, it's easy to forgive the author this minor observation.

My heart fell slightly at the publisher's blurb that used the old cliche that the book is at once epic and intimate, but I have to say that this perfectly sums up this book for once. Only a fool would predict the thinking of the Booker judges and a fool and his money are easily parted, they say. I am that fool. My money is on this as this year's winner.

Our great thanks to the good people at Faber and Faber for sending The Bookbag this Booker-nominated book. We apologise if our prediction has put the mockers on its chances!

The book that this most put me in mind of was Brooklyn by Colm Toibin which is another excellent read which we feel sure you would enjoy if you have enjoyed this book as much as we have. Amongst the stiff competition 'On Canaan's Side' faces in this year's Booker Prize are The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst and The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. Both are well worth checking out.

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Buy On Canaan's Side by Sebastian Barry at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy On Canaan's Side by Sebastian Barry at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy On Canaan's Side by Sebastian Barry at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy On Canaan's Side by Sebastian Barry at Amazon.com.

Booklists.jpg On Canaan's Side by Sebastian Barry is in the Man Booker Prize 2011.


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