'To remember sometimes is a great sorrow, but when the remembering has been done, there comes afterwards a very curious peacefulness. Because you have planted your flag on the summit of your sorrow. You have climbed it.'
Lilly Bere's voice towards the end of her long and deeply poignant memoir as recounted in Sebastian Barry's latest novel On Canaan's Side, and if you are au fait with all things Sebastian you may recall that Lilly was the youngest sister of Willie Dunne, the young soldier and the subject of the Best Book Not to Win the Booker (imho) A Long Long Way.
On Canaan's Side incidentally Another Best Book Not to Win the Booker (again imho)
I had been putting off reading this one. I love Sebastian Barry's writing so much but it's a love that comes with a fear attached to it... that the next book won't work the same magic. Needless fear, how could I have doubted an author I trust I now say, because as Lilly comes to life in her own right on these pages it was like slipping back into the fold of a family I already knew. The scene is soon set sufficiently for the reader to know that eighty-nine-year-old Lilly is mourning the loss of her grandson Bill, her breaking heart making 'a small slight sound' as it comes asunder from grief.
Each chapter is titled First Day without Bill, Second Day without Bill etc and if you can bear to read this book at a chapter a day as I have tried to (some days I just had to read the next one) you might find it pays you back handsomely. Allowing time to digest and understand the full import of all that happens to Lilly, whilst being alongside her over an extended period of time, turned this book into much more than another book read for me, it became reading as experience.
It is just after the Great War, Ireland is in turmoil and Lilly must flee Dublin with her boyfriend Tadg Bere when Tadg's loyalist part in an IRA ambush is discovered. Four of the IRA men are killed and Tadg will be the subject of a revenge killing for sure, and Lilly may be targeted for her father's police connections, so overnight Tadg and Lilly find themselves fugitives en route to the Promised Land that is America.
'Clothed in my American self' Lilly slowly comes into being in her own right as the story of her life unfolds, chapter by chapter and interspersed with the here and now of her most recent bereavement. The book will arc across almost a century of history, and Lilly's menfolk will play their part in the damaging conflicts of that century, from Willie's role in the Great War, to Lilly's son Ed's drafting to Vietnam, and grandson Bill's to Iraq.
Meanwhile Lilly must assimilate into a new country and several new lives throughout which she will know much hard work and tragedy. Lilly consistently makes the pact with life rather than death but her energy and resilience are running low...
I tend to write down single words as I read and my list for On Canaan's Side is endless... grace, memory, fear, terror, regrets, sadness, homesickness, grief, courage, humility, love, life, fate, danger. home, security, mourning, soul...
That's a lot to expect from one novel, let alone in any depth, but this is Sebastian Barry, one of those authors who makes every word do its work. All of my single words are completely encapsulated in Lilly's life, but especially fear, because who can know whether the unrequited revenge will follow them to America...
'Fear is a force like seasickness, could you call it a life-sickness, a terrible nausea caused by dread, creeping dread that seems to withdraw a little in dreams while you sleep, but then, just a few moments after waking, rushes back close to you, and begins to gnaw at your simple requirement for human peace.'
When you know what has happened to Lilly, and when you discover what is to come, you may just live and understand her fear as you read that, and perhaps then think of versions and moments of your own fear and really know.
There were moments when I was relieved to hold to my reading strategy of a chapter a day. Sebastian Barry is capable of delivering the emotional body blow that takes my breath away and needs time to recover. There are very few books that I have to set aside two chapters from the end in order to take in that emotional wallop, something that has undone me with its intensity, and for those who suggest the ending of On Canaan's Side seems rushed... well mine wasn't because I gave myself a day to absorb what I'd read so far and to prepare for it. The very next thing I would recommend when you finish the book is to try turning to the first two chapters and reading them once more. If you have read as I did it will be seventeen days since you were there, and I had been so deeply immersed in Lilly and her life that I had, like Lilly perhaps, almost forgotten how much I already knew.
It was hard to know what to pick up next once I had finished On Canaan's Side. It is one of those books that makes you dissatisfied with everything else you start, so I have hunkered down with some non-fiction and am reading Michael Mayne's memoir The Enduring Melody properly for the first time. Much more about this one soon; Michael Mayne, Dean Emeritus of Westminster and former Head of Religious Programmes (Radio) at the BBC, and a book 'begun in health, as a meditation on a lifetime's faith and experience' and ended in what Alan Bennet calls 'mortal sickness', as Michael Mayne faces death from an incurable cancer. It sounds morbid, but far from it. This is a book full of spirituality, joy and compassion but also about Michael Mayne's own reading life.
I had ended this post with some piffle thoughts about why I read, and why books like On Canaan's Side are so important for me, but I've crossed all that out because I think Michael Mayne says it too, and much better than I can...
'Life in all its messiness...characters allowed to make moral choices which may or may not be the author's and shaped by those choices for good or ill...Where everyone has a right to be understood : that's what impels the creative imagination of the writer and the empathetic response of the reader. The possibility, through a listening that is not judgemental, of getting inside another's skin, the enlarging of your own understanding of what it is to be someone else... an awakening of an awareness of other realities, other personalities, other people's lives.'
He talks further, quoting George Steiner on the limitations of words and how hard it can be to describe that experience we all know so well, of entering into a deeply personal relationship with a book, or a poem or picture.
Ultimately words may fail us, and indeed words may have their limitations, but thankfully not when it is Sebastian Barry who is writing them.