Review

On Canaan's Side

by Sebastian Barry

Eighty-nine-year-old Lilly Bere is bereft over the suicide of her beloved grandson Billy after he returns from the Gulf War. Lilly hates writing, yet she is compelled to “speak into the shadows of the past, into the blue ether of the future” and narrate the story of her life, beginning on the “first day without Bill.” While mourning this loss and wondering how she can live without him, Lilly takes 17 days to reveal her tragic story, beginning with her early years in Wicklow, Ireland, where her mother died giving birth to her.

"Elegant prose, a sympathetic and haunting character, and graceful touches of mystery and suspense make this a story that will linger with me long after I’ve turned the last page."

On Lilly’s first without Bill, she remembers her first heartbreak at age four, when she dropped a cherished porcelain doll on a stone floor in a cathedral. The day her doll shattered, it made a “small, slight sound,” which she wonders might also be the sound “of an eighty-nine-year-old heart breaking.”

As Lilly narrates her story, she recounts central figures in her life, including her father, brother, husbands, son and beloved grandson.

Her father, James Patrick Dunne, now buried somewhere in Ireland, was chief superintendent of the Dublin Metropolitan Police. He is the person who warns a teenage Lilly and her fiancé, Tadg Bere, that their lives are in danger, and he makes arrangements for them to flee Ireland in the dead of night.

Tadg had fought in World War I alongside Lilly’s brother, who did not make it back to Ireland. When Tadg returned from the war, he befriended Lilly, and their friendship blossomed into love. Later, because of Tadg’s job as a member of the hated Black and Tans, he and Lilly have a price placed on their heads. Fleeing from Dublin to America with new identities, the couple leaves behind family and friends, and lands in New York, where they hope to escape the politics and hatred of a divided Ireland.

They are disillusioned upon their arrival. Under a cloak of anonymity, they flee New York for Chicago, which Tadg eventually begins to call home. Yet Lilly feels a sense of unease and danger. Her suspicions prove true when Tadg is gunned down at her side in a museum. Confused, scared and covered in blood, Lilly flees, fearing for her own safety.

As Lilly narrates her story, she relates her journey from Ireland to New York, Chicago, Cleveland and Washington, D.C. In spite of all her hardships and disappointments, Lilly manages to find comfort in small things and bring joy to others.

ON CAANAN’S SIDE, from award-winning author Sebastian Barry, is the touching story of the life and times of Lilly Bere. Hers is a tale of love and loss, sorrow and joy, secrets and surprises. Elegant prose, a sympathetic and haunting character, and graceful touches of mystery and suspense make this a story that will linger with me long after I’ve turned the last page.

Reviewed by Donna Volkenannt on September 15, 2011

On Canaan's Side
by Sebastian Barry

  • Publication Date: August 28, 2012
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books
  • ISBN-10: 0143122185
  • ISBN-13: 9780143122180