Sebastain Barry’s latest novel, On Canaan’s Side, follows aging Lilly Bere as she crosses the Atlantic to America and slowly watches everyone around her die.
Of all the mothers sacred to stereotype, surely the Irish have the best. Others will look out for you while you’re around: the Italian mother feeds, the Jewish mother worries, the Chinese mother disciplines. But if you should die, who knows where they’ll be? It’s the Irish mother who keens, or ritually mourns her dead.
Sebastian Barry’s novel On Canaan’s Side is a contribution to the long tradition of Irish keening literature. Lilly Bere, the eighty-nine-year-old keener concerned, is technically an Irish grandmother: after learning of her grandson’s suicide she keeps a journal for the next seventeen days, just long enough for her to explain why she plans to take her own life when she’s done. “As long as it takes to speak into the shadows of the past, into the blue ether of the future, so long will it be, I hope and pray. Then I will find some quiet method to dispatch myself.” Those shadows of the past turn out to include a lot more than just her grandson, as she recalls the whole freight of personalities her life included as it took her fleeing out of Dublin, in search of asylum in America, and all across this vast country and the twentieth century before beaching her in Bridgehampton, Long Island, with just a few commiserating neighbors left as acquaintances.
The ground the novel covers is familiar not just nationally, but also personally. For almost thirty years, Barry has been writing plays and novels that give voice to the mournful memories of his native Ireland. Above all else, Barry is a monologist, and his work allots time and attention to characters who feel overlooked by history. Of his plays, Fintan O’Toole has written that “the drama comes, not from public conflicts, but from the human dignity that survives the loss of public meanings.” Lilly Bere is painfully aware of how little public meaning her own story has now. “My father was chief superintendent of police under the old dispensation,” she writes. “He was the enemy of the new Ireland, or whatever Ireland is now, even if I do not know what that country might be. He is not to be included in the book of life, but cast into the lake of fire, his name should not be mentioned because it is a useless name with a useless story.”
That father was the raving protagonist of the play The Steward of Christendom, and Lilly’s brother was the center of the Booker-shortlisted novel A Long Long Way, but On Canaan’s Side is more akin than anything else of Barry’s to his last novel (also Booker-shortlisted) The Secret Scripture. That book, too, used an old woman’s memories as a window into a lost world, but the woman happened to be an inmate in a mental hospital, and its narrative was split between her own voice and that of a doctor investigating her history. The uncertain, fractured perspectives of that novel are changed here for straightforward, uncomplicated, highly emotional reminiscence.
And its Irish setting, of course, is changed for America. As the destination of so many Irish expatriates, America-as-Canaan has always figured as an important idea in Barry’s work, but this novel is the first to really confront that idea as reality. When Lilly’s Black and Tan fiancé is targeted by the IRA, they both flee across the Atlantic. “I had the oddest sense as we sat on the train to New York that America was being built in great haste all in front of us, being invented for us as we went.” The book follows Lilly from penury in New York to tragedy in Chicago to deceit in Cleveland to temporary stability in Washington, D.C. and the Hamptons, and comes to resemble another old-fashioned literary form: the “Depression picaresque” popular around midcentury, in which poverty served as a pretext for national soul-searching, as in Faulkner’s The Wild Palms and Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March. Both keening and Depression literature are prone to lapsing into the bathetic, and this novel is not always successful in skirting that risk while conjoining the two, as when Lily describes her own tale as “a sort of half-muddled story, among the million wind-blown stories of America, countless as the stars.”
Actually, the description is rather accurate: the novel is muddled throughout by a weight of superfluity, canonical (another Irishwoman keening?), authorial (another dip into an old woman’s memories?) and, eventually, specific to the book: as everyone surrounding Lilly dies or disappears, and her son and grandson head toward psychological destruction in Vietnam and Kuwait, the narrative loses its power to handle individual events meaningfully, and the whole thing blurs into a tiresome dirge. Its publisher vaunts the book as “the story of the twentieth century in America,” but it isn’t so much America Lilly finds when she goes West as a shadowy and monotonous country of death.
Here and there, this gray landscape is interrupted by patches of color. One more interesting narrative thread concerns a dead neighbor Lilly hates the memory of, for reasons that remain secret for most of the novel. This hatred not only relieves the book’s emotional monotony, it occasions some of Lilly’s most distinguished prose: “I hope and pray Mr Nolan wends the long downward road to hell, with the fields beginning to burn around him, and the sunlight to take on a worrying, ragged hue, the vistas to alter and seem strange to him.” Unfortunately, Lilly’s anger is not nearly as enduring as her sorrow.
Barry’s basic problem may be the incompatibility of his elected traditions: the wide scope of the American picaresque precludes the necessarily focused attention of effective keening. The great prototype of Irish keening literature, John Synge’s 1904 Riders to the Sea, was a one-act play of astounding economy. Its protagonist, Maurya, howls frantically when she learns that the last of her sons is drowned, but then she stops: “They’re all gone now, and there isn’t anything more the sea can do to me… I won’t care what way the sea is when the other women will be keening.” There’s none of this Aran Island resignation in Barry’s novel: tied to a tale of American proportions, only suicide can stop the lament from going on forever.
Barry is often lauded as one of the best Irish stylists alive, and in this new effort of his to record “the poetry that is available to anyone” he occasionally lives up to that reputation. But garrulousness has no place among the gifts of the Blarney Stone.