Book Review – On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry

Written in the first person, On Canaan’s Side tells the story of Lilly Bere, the 89 year old narrator and protagonist who has had to live her life in exile and under the radar in the US.
Lilly’s story brings to life one of the most turbulent times in Irish history, when political divisions meant that many caught up in the conflict after the first world war, were either forced into exile or killed. Lilly’s story has some parallels with that of my own Irish grandmother’s, who, luckily for her, left Ireland not long after the end of the first war, and before the bloodshed and deep political divisions, prior to the creation of the Irish Free State, forced some, like Lilly, to flee in fear of their lives.
Lilly’s crime was to fall in love with Tadg Bere, who on returning from the First World War, chose to work as an auxiliary police officer for the oppressors, the hated Black and Tans. When Tadg’s name appears on a hit-list he and Lily run from Dublin to America and head for Chicago. Perhaps, with hindsight they should have chosen to go west, rather than east, and certainly not to a city already full of immigrants from Ireland and supporters for the other side of the political divide.
Rather than add in some plot spoilers at this juncture, suffice to say that Lilly is a survivor and despite the seemingly endless dreadful blows that life deals her, she not only endures but, even manages to enjoy her life with quiet stoicism. Lilly takes pride in her work as a cook and is admired and appreciated by her employer.
Sebastian Barry writes haunting, poetic and achingly beautiful prose. His characterisation of an elderly Irish woman is utterly convincing. When I finished the book I felt bereft. As I have come late to Barry’s work and now know that these characters appear in not just an earlier novel but in his earlier plays, I can’t wait to reconnect with them.

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