On Canaan's Side
Sebastian Barry
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Buy *On Canaan's Side* by Sebastian Barry online

On Canaan's Side
Sebastian Barry
272 pages
September 2011
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Eighty-nine-year-old Lilly Bere sits in the kitchen of her weathered house in the Hamptons where she can see the sand and the sea. Her grandson Bill, a war veteran, has just committed suicide after returning from the burning desert. Filled with remorse, Lilly scratches out from her Formica kitchen table the tale of her life (that will end shortly), and of her escape from Ireland to America, where she was never able to cry.

Before Lilly bids the world adieu, she must account for this despair. She has not been immune to all the lovely sights of this world. She still seems able to see everyone and everything as she writes, and she aches to greet her family again in Wicklow. Living with her with her sisters, Annie and Maud, and her father, a policeman of the old British regime, Lilly Bere becomes little Lilly Dunne.

Lilly mostly remembers her brother Willie’s death in Picardy, how he heard a German soldier singing only to receive the bullet of a sniper. Although she was a young girl, Lilly has never forgotten how her father talked of Willie. Then comes awkward young Tadg, a beautiful, rinsed-looking boy who was Willie’s best friend and fellow private in the platoon. With his haunting black eyes, Tadg gives Lilly his own memories of a soldier while he woos her with promises of love.

Liked by her father, Tadg joins the auxiliary police force during the time of “the Troubles.” When the Black and Tans level a death sentence against Tadg, Lilly weeps in terror. Unwilling to be torn away from him and by his death, she takes up the offer of two tickets from her father - their destination: New Haven, Connecticut. The lovers intend to be married correctly in America.

Perished by fear and loss, so begins the sad journey of this young couple. You can be sure that Lilly will never see her father again as she tries to find a way through the hardscrabble years that lie ahead. In the wintry city of Chicago, she half sees, half senses the approaching horror. Plucking at Tadg’s sleeve as he stares at the painting of himself, Lily tries to alert him to the dangers. Reduced by the observation of murder, she runs in a bloodied dress, only nineteen and so frightened.

Lilly’s journey is impossible not to follow, these threads of an immigrant’s life. In a time of terror, she takes the night train to Cleveland, thinking that she hears a murderer’s step behind her. Later, when she indentures with Cassie Blake to a wealthy family in salubrious Shaker Heights, her body strengthens from Cassie’s astounding cooking: “loving Cassie was where in truth she started to love America.”

Lilly falls into a half-troubled sleep as a great storm looms in from the Atlantic. All her people are swept away; Bill salutes his great uncle Willie, her son Ed hollowed out by Vietnam War. Barry’s vivid images are our window into Lily’s memories, the novel a gorgeous examination of the inner workings of a lonely woman's longings.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Michael Leonard, 2011

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