Sebastian Barry’s novels, I’m beginning to think, are a bit like that famous illusion of the two faces and a vase. Most of the time you’re reading them, they seem to be wrenchingly powerful and heartfelt depictions of suffering and grief. Yet, it doesn’t take much of a squint for them suddenly to look like the purest Irish corn.
When his last novel The Secret Scripture won the Costa Book of the Year Award in 2008, even the judges suggested that it was badly spoiled by a melodramatic twist at the end. The public, who bought it in their hundreds of thousands, clearly didn’t agree — and neither, it appears, did Barry. On Canaan’s Side also comes complete with a big closing revelation that two of the characters are more connected than we thought.
Nor do the resemblances stop there. Both books are narrated by an elderly woman whose astonishing hardships can be traced back to the same recurring Barry theme: they’re both from families that were on the wrong side in the Irish struggle for independence. (Both, in fact, are from families that appeared in Barry’s earlier works.)
In the case of On Canaan’s Side, the hard life belongs to Lilly Bere, sister of the main character in A Long Long Way and daughter of the eponymous Steward of Christendom in Barry’s breakthrough play of 1995. When the book opens, Lilly is reeling from the suicide of her beloved grandson Bill, who’d been traumatised by fighting in the first Gulf war. But, as we soon learn, this is no isolated piece of bad luck for the poor woman. Chased out of Ireland in her youth because of her boyfriend’s involvement in the Black and Tans, she ends up in America where she works in domestic service and watches almost everybody she gets to love die or disappear in hideous circumstances.
Like Roseanne McNulty in The Secret Scripture, Lilly is always aware of her global insignificance and entirely resigned to her powerlessness against the forces of history. (What Barry says about two men in The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty could serve as a handy summary of almost all his characters: ‘Scraps of people, blown off the road of life by history’s hungry breezes.’) Like Roseanne, Lilly tells her story with a lyricism that blends earthy similes drawn from her humble life, several thumping literary set-pieces and plenty of wise saws about the meaning of it all. ‘A measure of tragedy is stitched into everything,’ she writes, ‘if you follow the thread long enough’ — or, more prosaically, ‘The calf returns to where it got the milk.’
Abandon yourself to this voice, and the novel works pretty much the way it’s intended to: as a richly humane and sympathetic portrait of a hidden life. (Think Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn, only with a lot more violence and horror.) Yet, let in so much as a touch of scepticism — ‘like a drop of lemon in a jug of milk, to sour it for the soda bread’, as Lilly characteristically says of something else — and you might start to wonder if the whole thing isn’t just a bit contrived.
Given that On Canaan’s Side is essentially all of Barry’s other books rolled into one, his many fans will presumably lap it up. For us agnostics, though, that strange double perspective continues.