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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 6 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)    (TOP 1000 REVIEWER)   
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 Sep 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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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 100 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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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Intimate Yet Epic, 13 Aug 2011
By 
Simon Savidge Reads "Simon" (Manchester, UK) - See all my reviews
(TOP 1000 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: On Canaan's Side (Hardcover)
There is a rare moment, as a reader, when a narrator's voice makes the hairs on the back of you neck stand up with emotion, a kind of book lover's bliss - even when the content is sad. I had this within a paragraph of On Canaan's side when Lily Bere asks `What is the sound of an eighty-nine-year old heart breaking?' and from that moment on I was hooked by Lily's voice.

Lily Bere, it first appears, has decided that her life is over since the suicide of her grandson, who survived the Gulf war physically though not mentally, and the cause of her heart break. You are left to wonder if the death of her grandson reignites memories of her brother Bill's death in 1919 during the war, and starts the reminiscence that we are then told over a period of seventeen days. In fact it is her brother's death which introduces her to Tadg Bere, a former soldier who fought with her brother, a moment which sparks a romance and changes her life for the better. Happiness doesn't seem to last, it soon forces her to flee Sligo for America after Tadg joins the Black and Tans, this is itself again like an echo or rippling of the previous effects of her past and her fathers' time in the police force which we learn of in her childhood. We then follow Lily up to the present and how she ended up in Long Island and why.

If there were a theme in this beautifully written novel, the prose is quite something else; I would say that, after death and grief, it is the fact that history has a way of repeating itself no matter what. It also highlights the stupidity of those who don't learn from the past over those who seem to unwittingly draw the same events to them time and time again.

You would be forgiven for thinking this is a melancholic piece of writing, yet through her character and highlighting life's tragedies Lily also emphasises the pleasures in life, often the smallest of them being the very greatest. I can safely say from the character of Lily and her narration alone this will be one of my favourite reads of the year. I had hoped I would love this novel after reading `The Secret Scripture', and I did. I certainly wasn't quite prepared for the emotional journey that Lily and I would have.
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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars On Canaan's Side, 8 Aug 2011
This review is from: On Canaan's Side (Hardcover)
Without doubt, Sebastian Barry is a wonderful writer with descriptive abilities that are deeply impressive. However, I am just a little disappointed by On Canaan's Side. While the story is very gripping and I couldn't wait to finish the book, I felt a bit deflated at the end. For one thing, Barry went into TOO much description for my liking and there were times that I felt the long descriptive passages slowed down the story down very much.

There were also incidents where what I assumed to be a hint of a future development were introduced only never to be developed again. Hence the slight feeling of being let-down by the plot.

Without a doubt, I am a reader who likes logic and order in plots. However, I felt in this book, characters did things that were not quite in synch with how they had been set up. Without giving too much away, I think the actions of son, Ed, grand-son, Billy were not set up sufficiently well. They did things that were, in my view, very much `out of character' for them. There were incidents about husband, Joe, that were never explained or developed either.

I know, I know! The narrator is supposed to be a very old and grief-stricken woman with some selective memories. I accept this but just feel that there are still rough edges to this story that could have been honed a little better.

Secret Scriptures was also a story about a very old woman but the story hung together much better, I think.

Yes, definitely read this book. It's well worth reading still. Is it an ultimate Booker Prize winner? Somehow, I don't think so. Time will tell!
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On Canaan's Side
On Canaan's Side by Sebastian Barry (Hardcover - 4 Aug 2011)
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