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70 of 72 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Haunting
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...
Published on 3 Aug. 2011 by Julia Flyte

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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. All the familiar themes are here, the first world war, with the cliché of a warbling soldier getting whacked by a sniper, the black and tans and the RIC. Barry also tackles the great American topics, the second world war, Vietnam and...
Published 16 months ago by John Coffey


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70 of 72 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Haunting, 3 Aug. 2011
By 
Julia Flyte - See all my reviews
(TOP 50 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: On Canaan's Side (Hardcover)
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
4.0 out of 5 stars A mesmerising tale of the redeeming power of memory...., 13 Nov. 2011
By 
LittleMoon (loving my life in the rain) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)   
This review is from: On Canaan's Side (Paperback)
"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".

The empathy that Lilly inspires is where Sebastian Barry as a storyteller excels. He has created a woman whose desire to live burns brightly; whose indomitable will, generosity of spirit, optimism and understanding are irresistible. Lilly moves us by teaching us afresh what we already know, and what lies at the deepest heart of her story, the redeeming power of memory: "people that I have loved are allowed to live again ... the special happiness that is offered from the hand of sorrow."

Overall the novel feels very natural and unaffected, except for a final twist of coincidence, or fate, that seems contrived when weighed against the light touch with which the author has hitherto worked. I realise that some people dislike Barry's prose, but it would take a determinedly critical eye indeed to hunt out the artifice beneath its beauty. He is no Nabakov bullying a language into wild submission; instead, English comes alive under his touch as the sunshine might coax a bud into bloom. Few novelists can, with such apparent ease, create such a mesmerising and well-crafted tale for which the reader will give up their own world without even noticing: Sebastian Barry does here.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Breathtaking Prose, 4 Oct. 2011
This review is from: On Canaan's Side (Hardcover)
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. She remembers her brother, like a hazy picture of times long gone and who died during that very same war. She remembers everything, and everything she writes, like a living testament, even though she says she hates writing. She needs to tell everything, to get it out of her breast, because: "We are not immune to memory."
Even though "the past is a crying child", as she writes somewhere in this seventeen day long monologue, she never cries: "I am cold because I cannot find my heart," she's quick to point out. However, she's not really cold, she's just hurt, as she's lived an eventful life, but nevertheless poor where results were concerned. She worked a lot, she fought hard for a better tomorrow, she spent years and years in fear and whatever she won she lost, whomever she loved she buried. And yet not a single word of complain ever escapes her lips. Lilly is a woman full of patience, one of those unique and rarely met souls that can only feel compassion for the others, and who know how to forgive. One could say that her way of thinking and living sounds kind of fatalistic, and one would be wrong. Her memories are sad, but not bitter, and her memories are her life. Writing them down is what keeps her alive; her resilience is her power.
"Tears have a better character cried alone," she thinks, and that's why she mourns her loss on her own and in the quiet. And her tears turn into pearls of wisdom and humanity. As Joe, one of the main characters says, we "live in a big box of fear." Lilly takes this fear and turns it into power; she takes that power and turns it into a story - the story we are now holding in our hands.
Absolutely brilliant.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A beautiful, poetic book, 16 Sept. 2011
This review is from: On Canaan's Side (Hardcover)
Reading a Sebastian Barry novel is like meeting up with old friends again after many years. Once more, Barry takes a member of the now-familiar Dunne family, Lilly (sister of Willie who was so poignantly depicted in "A Long Long Way"), and recounts her tale of dislocation, disconnection from her family, and progressive loss of those dear to her. It's a sad and moving story which makes brilliant use of Barry's intensely personal and poetic prose, giving great depth of character and conveyance of emotion.
Although I loved this book (and all of Barry's other work, especially "The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty"), I must admit that I was very mildly disappointed by it in that I didn't think it was quite so well crafted as his earlier novels, and one or two of the events (involving the Robert Doherty character) just rang somewhat hollow for me. Certainly worth 4 stars, and well worth adding to your collection, but I can see why it didn't make the Booker shortlist.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Poem, actually., 7 Feb. 2013
By 
R. Chipperfield (Dublin, Ireland) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
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This review is from: On Canaan's Side (Paperback)
Saying that 'On Canaan's Side' isn't Barry's best still means that it's almost superb. Who can he be compared to? But the piling up of sorrows and miseries is hard to take, and towards the end I felt that the exposure of Mr Nolan's life and his death were more than enough grief in one story. So many people in the book were tidied up by death. The last jigsaw piece was Mr Nolan being clicked into place. Then Lilly had no more loved ones to lose, so the story ends - she decides to end it.

Barry is so compassionate, so humane, and so profoundly understanding of our heartaches and joys, our patience and our rage, that this sort of book is really a vehicle for his words. I imagine him getting up in the morning with his head so boiling with words and emotions that before he's even had coffee he cries 'I must write!' and hits the computer. Or pad of paper. And then, so slowly, crafts his wonderful prose.

As a novel, On Canaan's Side is unsatisfying. Lilly had happy times, but there's too much attention paid to her sorrows, and her periods of recovery from her bereavements aren't developed. Looking at 'On Canaan's Side' as a symphony, the 'bridge passages' are too brief, and the themes are too heavy and too crammed with development. One waits in some fear for the next disaster. Also, her ageing isn't a factor in the tale, until suddenly she's 'an old crone'!

The book is a poem. Plot doesn't matter very much, it's only a scaffold to support the language, which is exquisite. As in a good poem, Barry's words say what the reader longs to say, they illuminate and express thoughts he doesn't know he has.

Alternatively, it should have been a play.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant writing and very moving, 7 May 2012
This review is from: On Canaan's Side (Paperback)
The best book I have read for some time.

Barry tells the story of Lilly Dunne from her childhood in Ireland to the final days of her old age in America with insight and intimacy. Her joys, thoughts and sorrows are related in a beautiful lyrical prose which is sheer poetry. We are shown how extraordinary an ordinary "little" life really is, and the book reflects the depths and heights of existence, within which we are all caught.

The story, told by Lilly herself with intimate frankness and feeling, unfolds against the wider events of history, chronicling the wars and struggles of the twentieth century, civil rights, Vietnam and its traumatic aftermath. It encompasses many events, but it is the way that Lilly draws us in, so that we are fully engaged, which is so remarkable. We never lose its Irish character, but its appeal is universal.

Perhaps there is a slight weakness in the plot towards the end,(I won't spoil the book by revealing where), but by then I didn't care too much. Lilly is a memorable character, and this is a book to relish.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Via Dolorosa, 30 Dec. 2014
By 
Kate Hopkins (London) - See all my reviews
(TOP 1000 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: On Canaan's Side (Paperback)
Barry's narrator Lilly Dunne is (like his previous heroines Roseanne Clear and Annie Dunne) an old woman looking back on an unhappy life. Unlike Roseanne and Annie, however, Lilly is planning to commit suicide. As she tells her life story, one can understand why. Lilly's life, even by the standards of Sebastian Barry characters, is pretty miserable. She never knows her mother, who dies giving birth to her. She's slow at school, unable to read until the age of eight. The political troubles in early 20th-century Ireland have a bad effect on her policeman father's job, and his pension. Her beloved brother Willy is killed fighting in World War I (Willy's story is told in 'A Long, Long Way', which I've yet to read). After World War I she falls in love with Tadg Bere, one of Willy's comrades in the war - but Tadg ends up involved in the Black and Tans, which has dire consequences when Southern Ireland becomes independent. Before long, Tadg has to flee Ireland for America, with a price on his head, and Lilly has to leave her widowed father and two sisters and go with him. The couple finally settle in Chicago, where the relative who's taken them in makes it clear she's very unhappy that they are unmarried. Both are unhappy and homesick. Eventually, they begin to settle into their new life and to consider marriage - but then something happens which changes everything, and Lilly is on the run again, this time to Cleveland. She befriends a kind African-American girl called Cassie who finds her a job as a servant, and tries to get her life together again. But, this novel being the sort of book it is, misfortune keeps dogging her. Cassie kills herself after being assaulted by her master. Lilly's marriage to the seemingly kind and loving Joe, a policeman like her father, goes wrong in a way she could not imagine. Her clever son Ed, born late in her life, can't seem to settle to any kind of career, and drifts off to fight in Vietnam - with terrible results. She rears her grandson Billy, only to see him join the army after a disastrous marriage, and end up in the Gulf War - again with terrible results. And so it goes on. (NB none of these are spoilers; as Lilly is telling the whole story as a flashback, we learn most of the details of her life in Chapter 1, bar one plot twist).

Barry can write stunningly, and it's for this reason that I've given the book four stars. Some of his descriptions of the Irish landscape in the early chapters are magically beautiful, and he does give a good impression of the changes in America over the 20th century, from Lilly's arrival until her ninetieth year. There's lots of interesting bits of history tucked in, both Irish and American, and some very arresting scenes - I particularly liked the one in the Art Institute in Chicago where Tadg, gazing at a picture of Van Gogh, felt that it was himself in another guise. Overall, the concept of an Irish woman recalling a lifetime in exile was a good one for a novel.

But - despite the fine writing, and the factual interest, I have to say I didn't enjoy the book hugely. Part of the problem was that Lilly's voice just didn't seem convincing to me as that of an Irish girl with limited education who'd spent most of her life in manual toil and found writing difficult - she seemed in fact much more like a middle-aged male writer with a gift for poetic language trying to pretend to be a working class Irish woman! At the same time, in terms of action I found her oddly passive for a lively girl, brave enough to leave her own country and flee to America with her lover (granted, she may not have had any choice, as men were after her). She seemed to make little effort to help her son Ed, a bright boy, make the most of his talents or find a career, or to try to bring him back to the family home after Vietnam, and she made little effort to encourage any of Billy's talents either, simply letting him drift. She appeared to have few interests in anything, and made little attempt to develop any (the scene in which a kind employer, keen to foster Bill's musical talent, arranged for him and Lilly to attend the opera and they walked out to 'eat pizza and wait for the bus home' made me particularly irritated with Lilly. Lilly's reaction to any kind of misfortune seemed to simply be 'oh well, it was bound to happen'. Maybe one would become numbed in this way after several disasters, but it didn't make me warm to her. I also didn't believe she would have cut herself off quite so easily from her family in Ireland - she barely writes to Annie and Maude, her sisters, and only occasionally before he dies to her father. In addition to this, I felt that the misfortunes that Barry heaped on Lilly were at times unbelievable. For example, I didn't believe that Joe, supposedly a good, honourable man and an upright officer, would have done what he did, even if he was fearful of what would happen when his son was born - it was simply too awful a thing for such a man to do. I also felt that Ed's ties to his mother and son might have been too great for him to run away from them altogether, however troubled he was. And the twist at the end I found (like the one in 'The Secret Scripture') far too predictable - and Barry didn't leave himself quite enough time to express it. There was an uncomfortable sense at times (as with some Thomas Hardy novels) that the author was almost revelling in the utter misery of the situation he'd created, which made me feel a little uncomfortable. And the ending rather trailed off.

Not a book I personally enjoyed hugely, then, but I'd still recommend it for some passages of stunning writing and for the interesting historical context. I had similar feelings about 'The Secret Scripture' (I admired but didn't entirely like it) so that may be just how Barry's work takes me. Nevertheless, I will be interested to read 'A Long, Long Way' at some point.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sebastian Barry never disappoints me., 12 April 2012
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This review is from: On Canaan's Side (Kindle Edition)
Another great novel from Sebastian Barry. His use of language is so impressive amd memorable. The main character Lilly is the narrator and right from the first sentence you know that you are reading an extraordinarily well written story. A story which will linger in your memory long after you have finished it.
Highly recommended to anyone who appreciates a well-crafted story.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars From the opening line on, this is superb writing, 28 Aug. 2011
By 
Ripple (uk) - See all my reviews
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: On Canaan's Side (Hardcover)
Full of exquisite writing and compassion, this is a remarkable story from a believable narrator to whom unbelievable things have happened. Each chapter of "On Cannan's Side" represents a day after the death of the narrator, Lilly Bere's, grandson, Bill. Initially the reader is bombarded by a stream of half thoughts but soon Lilly begins to outline her own life story from being the daughter of a police officer in Ireland at the end of the First World War, her subsequent flight to the USA, to ultimately living in retirement as a domestic cook to a wealthy American. It's a remarkable story, full of tragic events, but for all its hardships, Lilly is from a time when such things are to be endured rather than dwelt on.

If you are looking for a book with a fast plot line, then this isn't for you. However, if you enjoy sumptuous prose and compassionate stories then this is an absolute joy to read. The opening lines, "Bill is gone. What is the sound of an eighty-nine-year-old heart breaking?" give you a strong sense of the beauty of the prose and the sadness of the narrator's life. I was hooked from that point on.

Lilly and her beau (Lilly is of an age where she might indeed use such a term) are forced to flee Ireland and to disguise their identities on arriving in the US. Indeed, poor Lilly doesn't have a great track record with her choice of male friends it turns out, not least because she is so keen to hide her own past that she is often blind to the fact that the men she encounters are usually hiding something of their own, and often this is far more damaging than Lilly's own secrets. The loss of her grandson is the final straw though. Now, she's ready to tell her story.

What is striking is the apparent authenticity of the narrator's voice. She's not just any elderly lady, but her voice is completely consistent with her past and her perceived status in life. Arguably this comes as a cost in that although we get her life story, we don't always get much of her character, but the point is that is who she is. She is of a time when problems were kept private and the difficulties of life were to be endured.

As with all good literary fiction, there are deeper questions and issues here. Various relatives fight in a series of wars (World Wars One and Two, Vietnam and the Gulf) all in the name of their country. But to what extent do their countries represent their interests? Moreover, while the USA is the land of Canaan of the title, where identities can be changed, no one ever escapes where they came from in life.

While the experiences of Lilly's life are pretty horrific, and there's plenty of sadness in her life, it's not a depressing read as such. Yes, you feel for her, but she often recalls the moments of happiness in her life. She is often a victim, but never sees herself as such.

The most striking thing about the book though is the quality of the writing. It's unmistakably "Irish literary fiction", full of beautiful descriptions and stunning use of the language. You might feel that some of the descriptions slow down the pace of the book, but when they are that good, it's easy to forgive the author this minor observation.

My heart fell slightly at the publisher's blurb that used the old cliché that the book is "at once epic and intimate", but I have to say that this perfectly sums up this book for once.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Intensely poetic, lyrical and violent, 25 Oct. 2013
By 
Dr R (Norwich, UK) - See all my reviews
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: On Canaan's Side (Paperback)
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". Following the death of her grandson, Bill, 89-year old Lilly (Dunne) Bere looks back on the events of her life, from her childhood amongst the heathers in Wicklow to her later eventful life in America, Lilly's mind careering through her past like "an unbroken pony".

Her story is recounted over 17 days, with each chapter being headed First Day without Bill etc. These daily memories ("How strange, how strange. We may be immune to typhoid, tetanus, chicken-pox, diphtheria, but never memory. There is no inoculation against that.") are strung together like fine pearls on a necklace. I confess that I had a lump in my throat when reading about the family's receipt of the news of the death of her brother, Willy, in Picardy.

We meet Lilly in her kitchen at her Formica table with a scalded teapot next to her - drinking tea is a trope running through this novel, "There is never a day goes by that we don't drink a strange cup of tea together, in some peculiar parlour-room at the back of my mind." After the death of her grandson, Bill, damaged in the First Gulf War, she tries to assuage her grief ("The pressure of sorrow is like being sent down to the core of the earth. So how are we not burned away?") by writing out an account of her life. Prior to this, her son Ed had been similarly injured in Vietnam - Lilly believing that "I had contaminated him", "the poison... in me, was history". However, as we find out, Lilly's life is littered with death.

The daughter of a high-ranking policeman in the Dublin Metropolitan Police she is caught up in the violence in Ireland between the Great War and the formation, in 1922, of the Irish Free State. As a teenager, she meets Tadg Bere, who fought alongside Willie but, unlike him, returned from the mud and gore. Helped by her father's contacts, Tadg became a police officer in the hated Black and Tans ("They barely had uniforms, and in the beginning wore bits and bobs of various forces, half army and half police, which is why they were dubbed the Black and Tans".) Tadg is unmoved by violent moves for Irish independence by the Irish Volunteers. "He did not believe in any new Ireland," Lilly recalls. "He devoutly loved the old one."

The couple find staying in Ireland impossible; following an ambush in which a group of rebels are killed by the Black and Tans, both of their names appear on a death-list and they are forced to flee to America. Their assumed names, the contacts they are given and their progress from New York to the "glittering Canaan" of Chicago are futile. Tadg is gunned down in the Art Institute of Chicago in front of a van Gogh self-portrait (a rare false step by the author) and Lilly, covered with his blood and unable to comprehend the "the colossal ungenerosity" of his murder, must flee once. She ends up as a maid in Cleveland in love with the enigmatic policeman, Joe, who enters her life after defending her black best friend, Cassie, from whom she learns to cook.

Joe is the only character that I was doubtful about and when he eventually leaves Lilly, who finds security, or so she thinks, working for an elite Irish-American family, the Wolohans, who bear a considerable resemblance to the Kennedys. She records her memories from a small waterside cottage offered to her by her employer's daughter, ("Why she has harboured me, why she has protected me, all these years of my retirement I do not know. Why she has allowed this long, long tenancy of her little house, which might be put to a hundred other uses, and indeed, being so near the sea, is very valuable, standing plumb on its little yard, remains to me a mystery.").

Barry obliquely sketches the complexity of 20th century Irish history and resists filling in complex historical detail. His characterisation, always a strongpoint, is especially masterful in the voice of Lilly. She says that she writes because "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 sorrow. You have climbed it." The author has unfurled his flag at the top of another literary summit.
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On Canaan's Side
On Canaan's Side by Sebastian Barry (Hardcover - 4 Aug. 2011)
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