Book Club: On Caanan’s Side by Sebastian Barry

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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.

Anne: I really enjoyed it, it was a clever device pinning a woman’s history with the wider historical events. I read it for the story, but I’m going to re-read for the wonderful language. The only thing I didn’t understand was the bear – what was that about?

Anthea: It linked back to the beginning – I wondered if what she was describing was in the child’s mind, or reality – almost a childhood fear.

Maureen: I thought it was they were actually targeting terrorists – this incident happened, I thought it was a terror attack because of her father’s work as a policeman.

Greta: Yes, that’s what I thought too.

Maureen: She relates it to the end, it’s part of the grief. Personally I was quite distressed, it’s very well written, but it was a bit much for me, too full of grief.

Rosemary: I thought it was talking about your history as always being with you. The Irish history, going well back, is entirely linked to individual identity, you can’t escape it. She, in particular, was under threat, but it’s applied to anyone who wants to escape their old life, whether real or imaginary, it’s impossible.

Maureen: She does say throughout, it’s about getting on, learning to live with loss, it’s about how she can survive throughout it all.

Anne: I didn’t enjoy the Irish bit so much.

Anthea: I couldn’t read it continually, I had to absorb each stage.

Greta: I didn’t really believe in her as an elderly woman, I didn’t really like it much, I thought the tragedy was a bit too thick and fast, and I wasn’t convinced with the device of her writing this down just before committing suicide, the whole of the book was therefore on false foundations.

Ali: Yes, she’d never written before, it was out of character.

Rosemary: Despite the melting pot of US, you couldn’t take the Irish out of the girl, again, she couldn’t escape her past. It did strike me as a bit ‘Kennedy’ – apparently some elements were taken from that story. I wasn’t convinced by her voice either.

Anthea: I thought it was quite like his other books.

Rosemary: Apparently it was based on his family background, he’s just fictionalised it. His uncle was a policeman killed in the troubles.

Anthea: In part, this felt like a reworking of The Secret Scripture – perhaps that’s why I didn’t feel her voice worked as well.

Rosemary: I saw him talk at the Borders Book Festival – he was completely overwhelming, the bit that he read was when she was going over the park in New York (on a rollercoaster) – I wondered why he chose that, and he said it was a turning point – this was where she feels able to leave the past at the top of the rollercoaster and move into the present.

Barbara: There were some interesting bits like the immigrants’ life in NYC, but I though some of the plotting was contrived.

Rosemary: The ending felt a bit rushed to me – rather like William Boyd’s Before Sunrise.

Pauline: Despite the grief, I thought it was a good read. Yes, it was a little contrived, but isn’t that fiction for you?

Judy: It was packed with emotion, very relevant to the politics and people of the 20th century. How did he get inside the mind of an 89-year-old woman and tell her story so painfully, poetically and poignantly? Innovative and inspiring, I loved every word.

z Book Group meets at The Mainstreet Trading Company in St Boswells. Our next meeting is on November 21 and we are reading Moon Tiger and How it all Began by Penelope Lively. New members welcome, see for details or join the mailing list email