On Canaan’s Side is a eulogy, a confession, and a letter of gratitude. It is told by 89-year old Lilly Bere, who is in the throes of grief over the sudden death of her grandson, Bill, a recent veteran of the first Gulf War. Written over seventeen despairing days, Lilly looks back upon a life that has been marked by loss, deception, and benevolence while she looks forward to the final relief of her own upcoming death.
That Lilly turns to writing is ironic, “Nothing else on earth would have set me to writing. I hate writing. I hate pens and paper and all that fussiness…Oh, I am lying to myself. I have feared writing…” Yet she sits and faces her own painful memories through written words, bringing the scars from her past out into the plain site of the present, “How strange, how strange. We may be immune to typhoid, tetanus, chickenpox, diphtheria, but never memory. There is no inoculation against that.”
Lilly begins her poignant narrative with short, spasmodic sentences; they are hesitant and erratic, which makes the effort all the more authentic. And in these first seemingly disconnected pages we are introduced to the characters we will eventually come to fully know, including those who have harmed her along the way even while professing their love for her, and those who have given sincerely of themselves as she made a life in America, often alone and without hope. As Lilly immerses herself within her writing, the sentences gradually transform and take on a poetic rhythm, a cadence that draws you gently into Lilly’s memories as if you and she are experiencing them for the very first time together. The author’s merging of the prosaic with the poetic is an extremely effective narrative technique, one that I had never before encountered. By the story’s close, I felt as though I was listening to a soothing lullaby, as Lilly comes to terms with life in America, which she softly declares is “a marriage of hope and suffering.”
The tragic stage that is Lilly’s life was set early–born motherless in Ireland at the turn of the 20th Century. After World War I, she is forced to leave her father and sisters to escape to America, “a glittering Canaan,” due to her fiancé, Tadg’s connections with the Black and Tans, British loyalists who fought against the rebels during the initial struggles for Irish independence. Her own immigration is an epic drama of endurance, tragedy and survival that breaks your heart as you read. Her subsequent, serpentine journey across the East Coast of America in the decades that follow is great storytelling–filled with twists and turns along the way that you are never prepared for. You slowly come to understand why her relationship with Bill means so much, and why his death, of all the losses she has sustained, is the one that makes her long for her own end.
On Canaan’s Side, was a wonderful introduction to Sebastian Barry, a literary legend from Ireland who is world-renown for his many award-winning novels, plays, and poems. Published this September, On Canaan’s Side is by far one of my best reads of 2011.