A first-person narrative of Lilly Bere’s life, On Canaan’s Side opens as the eighty-five-year-old Irish émigré mourns the loss of her grandson, Bill. Lilly, the daughter of a Dublin policeman, revisits her eventful past, going back to the moment she was forced to flee Ireland at the end of the First World War. She continues her tale in America, where—far from her family—she first tastes the sweetness of love and the bitterness of betrayal.
Spanning nearly seven decades, Sebastian Barry’s extraordinary fifth novel explores memory, war, family ties, love, and loss, distilling the complexity and beauty of life into his haunting prose.
Eric B. says:
"The beauty of Barry’s writing is almost visceral. There are passages either so nicely phrased or so deeply insightful that a frisson of pleasure or pain is inescapable. In addition to this literary facility one of the most engaging protagonists in my recent memory adds an unusually satisfying degree of substance.
Lilly Bere is a person who understands love and fear, and can escape the consequences of neither. Her capacity for both and for a steadfast moral strength in the face of the damages thereby inflicted is especially endearing. She loves with a fidelity and readiness that would provide an ideal for anyone. Her disregard for the perils and willingness to suffer what she often knows will be a tragic outcome is more than admirable; it’s almost heroic. She is an epic figure.
Overlaying all this is Barry’s exquisite prose which often bears rereading just to make sure the reader was not dreaming it. Lilly’s narration includes this: “It’s so strange that I can write this, and feel that my years have no width or length, have no dimension at all, just the downturn of a bird’s wing. So quick, so quick.” Or the opening sentences of the book, which in my opinion might be some of the best ever written, “Bill is gone. What is the sound of an eighty-nine-year-old heart breaking? It might not be much more than silence, and certainly a small sound.” If you are not affected by these, you should check your pulse.
There is some mystery here, a few genuine surprises, a wealthy exposition of the generosity and paucity of the human spirit, and a golden portrait of love. I cannot recommend this book too highly. It is a profound literary achievement."