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Bookmarks Issue: 
56-Jan-Feb-2012
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A-On Canaans SideSebastian Barry is an Irish writer, playwright, and poet. His novel, The Secret Scripture (4 of 5 Stars Selection May/June 2009), was named the Costa Book of the Year and the Irish Novel of the Year. He is also the author of A Long Long Way (2005), a Booker Prize finalist that featured Willie Dunne, a soldier. On Canaan's Side is another entry in Barry's series about the fictional Dunne family, World War I–era Irish loyalists.

The Story: At the end of World War I, Lilly Dunne (Willie's sister) was forced to flee Ireland with Tadg Bere, a member of the infamous Black and Tans. But when the young lovers attempted a new life in America (the "Canaan" of the title), they learned that violence had followed them across the ocean. Now, at age 89, Lilly is no stranger to grief. But the death of her grandson, Bill, a Gulf War veteran, has left her reeling. As the elderly Irish woman narrates her life in flashback chapters, she mourns his loss, reflects on her tumultuous past, and reveals how war and violence have shaped her family. Indeed, she learns that "there is nothing called long-ago after all."
Viking. 272 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 9780670022922

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"It's testament to [Lilly's] Irish stoicism and American hopefulness that she endures. And it's a testament to the power of Barry's quietly elegant prose that her immigrant story seems so tragic and so real." Laura DeMarco

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Barry's immigrant novel feels more old-fashioned, more sepia-toned with its high seriousness, its frank antiwar message, and its sense that a story properly begins with childhood, contains all the events of life and ends with death. The beauty of this novel is that for all its murders and scents of Irish heather, it is not overwritten." Rachel Nolan

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Barry's commitment to telling the stories of families like the Dunnes reflects a passion for justice. ... Narrating a story of hatred and vengefulness in the voice of a woman resolute in compassion, Barry applies a breadth of vision often absent when nationalists and revolutionaries of any nationality consider the ‘other,' especially if that ‘other' happens to be a loyalist of the ancient regime." Peter Behrens

Minneapolis Star Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The plot is beautifully crafted. Lilly's wanderings--involving stops in New York, Chicago and Cleveland, before she finally comes to a kind of rest on Long Island--make the story seem episodic, but Barry knows exactly what he's doing; the latter part of the novel has several convincing surprises." Robert Cremins

Guardian (UK) 3.5 of 5 Stars
"At certain points, in wanting Lilly's life to be symptomatic of her times--she finds work as housekeeper to a political family and cooks pecan pie for Martin Luther King--the historical narrative threatens to overwhelm the intimacies of her life. ... But the little epiphanies and stirrings of love that Lilly Bere clings to as things falls apart are what keep both her and her story honest." Tim Adams

Critical Summary

Sebastian Barry earned critical acclaim for his portrayal of the tragic Dunne family both in his play, The Steward of Christendom, and A Long Long Way. Reviewers found Lilly's story just as accomplished, describing it as rich and authentic, stripped free of the sentimentality that often clouds war-themed fiction. Several thought the antiwar message heavy-handed at times, and others noted that the historical details tend to weave Lilly's personal life into too neat of a plot. Most critics agreed with the Cleveland Plain Dealer, however, that "it's a testament to the power of Barry's quietly elegant prose that her immigrant story seems so tragic and so real."