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On Canaan's Side Hardcover – 4 Aug 2011

4.2 out of 5 stars 76 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Faber & Faber; Main edition (4 Aug. 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0571226531
  • ISBN-13: 978-0571226535
  • Product Dimensions: 16.1 x 2.5 x 24 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (76 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 165,970 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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

Book Description

From the bestselling Costa Prize-winning author of The Secret Scripture another heartbreaking novel spanning a lifetime.

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By Julia Flyte TOP 500 REVIEWER on 3 Aug. 2011
Format: 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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Format: 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.
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Format: 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".
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