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On Canaan's Side [Paperback]

Sebastian Barry
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (59 customer reviews)

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Paperback, 28 Aug 2012 --  
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Book Description

28 Aug 2012

'As they used to say in Ireland, the devil only comes into good things.'

Narrated by Lilly Bere, On Canaan's Side opens as she mourns the loss of her grandson, Bill. The story then goes back to the moment she was forced to flee Dublin, at the end of the First World War, and follows her life through into the new world of America, a world filled with both hope and danger.

At once epic and intimate, Lilly's narrative unfurls as she tries to make sense of the sorrows and troubles of her life and of the people whose lives she has touched. Spanning nearly seven decades, it is a novel of memory, war, family-ties and love, which once again displays Sebastian Barry's exquisite prose and gift for storytelling.

--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Product details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (28 Aug 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780143122180
  • ISBN-13: 978-0143122180
  • ASIN: 0143122185
  • Product Dimensions: 19.8 x 13.1 x 2.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (59 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,394,153 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Sebastian Barry was born in Dublin in 1955. His plays include Boss Grady's Boys (1988), The Steward of Christendom (1995), Our Lady of Sligo (1998) and The Pride of Parnell Street (2007). His novels include The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty (1998), Annie Dunne (2002), A Long Long Way (2005) and The Secret Scripture (2008). He has won, among other awards, the Irish-America Fund Literary Award, the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Prize, the London Critics Circle Award and the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Prize. A Long Long Way, which was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Dublin International Impac Prize, was the Dublin: One City One Book choice for 2007. The Secret Scripture won the Costa Book of the Year Award, the Irish Book Awards for Best Novel and the Independent Booksellers Prize. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award, Christopher Ewart-Biggs award and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. He lives in Wicklow with his wife and three children.

Product Description


'A work of great lyrical beauty, a big-hearted story of a woman at the end of her long and difficult life.' --Amy Raphael, The Times

'Imbued with sorrow, joy, tenderness and also moments of great humour ... a luminously beautiful story that well deserves its place on the Booker longlist, and beyond.' --Leyla Sanai, Independent on Sunday

'It's a story that will deepen your understanding of yourself and others. The quietening, closing chapters are amongst the most moving and beautiful you will read this year - or any other.' --Niall MacMonagle, Irish Times

'A lyrical evocation of trauma and exile, bearing a seemingly endless series of potent images.' --Alex Clark, Guardian

'Stunningly poetic ... On Canaan's Side can be celebrated for the beauty, wisdom and pleasure it provides.'
--Adam O'Riordan, Sunday Telegraph --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Book Description

From the bestselling Costa Prize-winning author of The Secret Scripture another heartbreaking novel spanning a lifetime. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
70 of 72 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Haunting 3 Aug 2011
By Julia Flyte TOP 50 REVIEWER
The story is narrated by Lilly Bere, an 89 year old Irish cook living on the East Coast of the US, who is mourning the sudden death of her grandson. It starts off as a jumble of memories, a raw stream of consciousness and I feared that this was going to be one of those impenetrable books that Booker Prize judges always seem to like so much and which leave me feeling cold. However the story soon starts to develop and pulls you in.

Lilly was born in Ireland and her early life is marked by the deaths of her mother and her brother. As a teenager she is forced to flee to the US ("Canaan's Side"), where she will live - somewhat fearfully - for the rest of her life. So it's the story of her life, but anchored in the present day loss of her beloved grandson. There are themes of war, loss, racial tensions and betrayal than recur, lending the story some genuine tension at times. However what really stands out is the achingly beautiful writing. Lilly's memories are like your own memories: sometimes events get jumbled together, sometimes events remain so acutely with us that you can still remember what the temperature was and the scent in the air and the music that was playing on the radio, even many years later. I liked the way that the writing doesn't always spell things out but allows the reader to make connections in their own mind. And the ending is perfect. This is a book to read slowly and savour.

If you enjoyed this, I'd also recommend Brooklyn, which has a similar feel.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
"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 the sorrow. You have climbed it."

It's been a while since I have inhabited a novel to such an extent that returning to reality was almost unwelcome; it was at 3am this morning I finished "On Canaan's Side" to the chill of November air beyond my duvet.

Barry's novel demands a poetic review, such is the power of his writing, which is poetic in a way that only prose can be, vibrant with sweeping epic similes that meander over sentences, entrancing, ever so slightly imprecise. And it's the blurred edges of this narrative, its imagistic nature, which make tangible the memories of 89 year old Lilly Bere as she writes "terrified by grief" because she: "cannot depart without some effort to account for this despair."

And hers is a life that has courted a disproportionate amount of tragedy that would have floored all but the strongest of souls. Lilly though is "thankful for my life, infinitely" and her survival is due to a keen awareness of all the tiny moments of happiness that have been scattered through her life, and the lives of the people she's loved, and which she gathers around her as a shield against the relentless blows that fate has dealt her. "It's like a sort of TV, these memories" she tells us, and we know exactly what she means. We are there with her, on the roller-coaster just as the sun appears from behind a cloud "like a very thunderstorm of light" and she is "poised in the gentle under-singing of the wind ... almost to heaven", as surely as we are there when murder arrives with "vigorous unstoppable intent" pitching her down "to the core of the earth".
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Breathtaking Prose 4 Oct 2011
To put it simply: Sebastian Barry writes so beautifully, so poetically, that when I read his books I find myself almost ashamed to admit that I'm also a writer - and a jealous one at that. His prose is so deeply humane and so well-crafted that almost reads like verse; verse that makes you want to cry; no, not from sorrow, but from joy, for having the privilege of reading it. I'm not implying that the subject matters with which the good author is preoccupied are pleasant, quite the opposite, they float in sadness, yet the way he narrates them do not bring much sorrow to the reader's heart. He seems, in a magical way, to grab the latter by the hand and lead him on to a journey through the wide paths of history, a history that touches everything and everyone in different ways; personal and impersonal at the same time.
This is the story of Lilly Berre, an eighty-nine year old woman, whose grandson Bill just died, and who now just sits and writes down her memoirs, reliving through them a long life full of sorrows and a few touches of joy. The narrator talks in a direct and almost oral way about love and war, about country and home, and about loss, old age and death. And she doesn't complain about anything, even just a little bit, although she has every right to do so, given the way the fates have treated her.
Her memories, despite her age, are crystal clear, as they are deeply engraved on her tortured soul. She remembers a father whom she loved too much, but whose choices have caused her endless troubles but also saved her life. She remembers her first big love, the man with whom she escaped from Ireland to America, just after the First World War, and whose face reminded her of a Van Gogh painting.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Three Stars
ok but wouldnt recommend to a friend
Published 14 hours ago by mary carmel turner
4.0 out of 5 stars On Canaan's Side
A great read. Positively lyrical writing. A very enjoyable read and look forward to reading further novels by Sebastian Barry. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Sarah Ashton
5.0 out of 5 stars A good read
I loved the way Barry tells the story or a old Irish lady and her memories of having to leave Ireland for America and how she coped with the change in culture there. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Martha Miles
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful writing
Barry suits his style to his characters and their circumstances. Such versatility and perception is a real pleasure. This novel.deals with exile and identity with feeling of loss. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Ann Gleeson
5.0 out of 5 stars A Very Good Book
Would recommend this book to anyone especially those who have an understanding of Irish politics and of emigration whether forced or voluntary.
Published 4 months ago by Llewellyn Mooney
3.0 out of 5 stars A canaan breakfast
The formula is old hat; despairing suicidal old hag rants her way through the twentieth century, rememberance and loss writ large. Read more
Published 5 months ago by John Coffey
5.0 out of 5 stars heart-breakingly profound
So pale enough lives within a complex tapestry that encapsulates pointless wars, nationalism and the damage of discrimination out of the anguish of war. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Maggie Stanfield
5.0 out of 5 stars Love anything by Sebastian
Had read Secret Scripture as first book by Sebastian Barry so knew I couln't go wrong with any other of his wonderful literature.
Published 8 months ago by Mrs Marion Gilbert
5.0 out of 5 stars Intensely poetic, lyrical and violent
Sebastian Barry is narrating the stories of members of the Dunne family in his books "Annie Dunne", "A Long, Long Way" and his play "The Steward of Christendom". Read more
Published 9 months ago by Dr R
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Story
This is a very moving, beautifully written story about an old first generation Irish lady recalling her life as a kind of suicide letter, after the suicide of her beloved grandson... Read more
Published 9 months ago by Chalky White
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