As yet I haven’t got my hands on that book, but if it sings as well as Barry’s previous novels and plays then it will be a magnificent read.
A Long Way
My Christmas holiday book this year was his 2005 novel, A Long Way, short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. It starts: He was born in the dying days.
‘He’ is Willie Dunne, the main character in the novel, who is aged 18 at the beginning of World War I when he joins the Royal Dublin Fusiliers to spend four years in the hellish trenches in Belgium. He is 22 when he is shot in the head when he heard a man singing from the German section, singing a tune he knew…. “He lifted up his own voice and sang back to his enemy, the strange enemy that lay unseen. They shared a tune that was still true. A single shot marked its own note in the easy dark, hushing the owl.”
Although a devastating account of the horrors of trench warfare and the simultaneous political and bloody calls for home rule in Ireland, the novel has a lyricism that is, in a lot of reviews, compared with the poetic accounts of the same world war by British poets, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Both were killed in the trenches.
Livin’ On Canaan’s Side
Barry takes up the history of Willie Dunne’s family again in his 2011 book, On Canaan’s Side, which begins: Bill is gone.
Bill has returned from the Gulf War, a traumatized young man. He hangs himself. Bill is the grandson of Willie Dunne’s youngest sister Lilly who was forced to flee Ireland in 1920 when she fell in love with Tadge, a friend of her brother’s who had returned to Dublin after the war but who refused to support Home Rule for the Irish and joined the local British police force known as the Black-and-Tans.
After being identified in an ambush of revolutionaries where some were killed, Tadge is a marked man and is forced to flee to America with Lilly who has been wrongly denounced as an informer.
Lilly is now 89, and in the 17 days without Bill she recounts her life story, wandering back and forth in time as the elderly often do; which is why their stories are too often dismissed as rambling nonsense.
Barry tells Lilly’s tale with a poetic touch that took my breath away. It has been described as a sepia-toned history. It has the same anti-war message of its predecessor and the same lyricism.
Readers with a taste for contemporary American history may find the character Mrs Wolohan (for whom Lilly cooked for many decades) bears a resemblance to Rose Kennedy whose own sons and brothers and husbands were killed or mentally damaged in wars and assassinations.
Perhaps the best-known Sebastian Barry novel, The Secret Scripture, published in 2008 and a multiple award winner, has garnered attention due to the movie of the same name released last year. I’m looking forward to opening up to page one and reading its birdsong sentence. Undoubtedly I’ll become enmeshed in a new family history, that of the McNultys, who are the mainstays of Barry’s second novel, The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, and the one with which I started this article.
Another of my favourite Irish authors, Joseph O’Connor, writes of the Secret Scripture as being a novel that subverts iconographic beliefs: “Barry is doing something darker and more daring than image-breaking. He makes beautiful prose out of the wreckage of these lives by allowing them to have the complication of actual history in all its messy elusiveness.”
He adds: “History, as far as I can see, is not the arrangement of what happens, but a fabulous arrangement of surmises and guesses held up as a banner against the assault of withering truth. His achievement in this magnificent and heart-rending novel is a kind of restitution.”
Truong Hoang is behind the much-loved book shop, Bookworm. For more info click on bookwormhanoi.com or visit their shop at 44 Chau Long, Ba Dinh, Hanoi