If The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes is concerned with the unreliability of memory, then another Booker-shortlisted novel is about the necessity of memory for anchoring our identity. Lily Bere, the eighty-nine year old narrator of On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry, sifts the memories of her long and tragic life. “What is the sound of an eighty-nine year old heart breaking?” she asks. Her “confession” provides the answer, where “a measure of tragedy is stitched into everything, if you follow the thread long enough.” Raking through the ancient store of her memories, Lily substantiates this assertion.
After the First World War, the young Lily is betrothed to Tadg Bere. He has enlisted for the Black and Tans, the Army regiment recruited to suppress any revolutionary impulses within Ireland. As a Catholic, he becomes a hunted man when a death sentence is placed on his head by the IRA. Lily and Tadg flee Sligo and cross the Atlantic to the security of America.
For Lily, America is the promised land. She is an archetype of the grateful immigrant, “a voyager in love with the place of her voyage.” But there is no escape from the enmities of the past and in New York, Tadg is murdered. Lily goes on the run. On Canaan’s Side interweaves the domestic details of Lily’s life in America with the broader sweep of history – the Second World War, the civil rights movement, Vietnam, the nuclear age and the Gulf War.
Employing a heightened lyricism, Barry describes the interplay between the memory of historic events and those quotidian experiences and people that coalesce in the memory to illuminate an ordinary life. For Lily, the memory of a golden afternoon on a rollercoaster with her husband has as much significance as hearing the news of Martin Luther King’s assassination. Both events make an impression on her, but only the joy of the fairground ride penetrates her being and is formative. “We may be immune to typhoid, tetanus, chickenpox, diphtheria, but never memory. There is no inoculation against that,” Lily points out.
Barry writes with all the concentrated attention of a poet. His prose is attuned to the pulse of life in all its sorrows and solaces– those stirrings and quickenings that reveal themselves to us in recollection and amplify the whispered cadences of the soul. As Lily puts it:
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.
And I notice again in the writing of this confession that there is nothing called long-ago after all. When things are summoned up, it is all present time, pure and simple. So that, much to my surprise, people I have loved are allowed to live again. What it is that allows them I don’t know. I have been happy now and then in the last two weeks, the special happiness that is offered from the hand of sorrow.
On Canaan’s Side, Sebastian Barry, Faber, 2011