On Cannan’s Side by Sebastian Barry is a shadow book — we learn of the long life of Lilly Bere through her memories, recovered in fits and bursts over the fourteen days following the death of her grandchild Bill, but those memories are like dark shadows cast over the blank wall of Lilly herself. Who is she?
Lilly is either the unluckiest woman in the world (mother dead at birth and all the men she loves dropping dead or out of sight) or the luckiest (landing on her feet through the kindness of stranger after stranger, friend after friend, and finding the BEST employer ever) — but what she never became for me was a flesh and blood woman. She is a poetic woman, with a lovely gift for words and of observation, but she never seemed real to me.
The writing is melodic, almost hypnotic at times (repeating, rhythmic, rolling words) — I underlined many lines for the sheer beauty of the language. And yet the story itself relies too heavily on dramatic events and uncanny conjunctions of people and places. I understand that the novel is meant to be an epic, as all immigration stories are and how could I forget? Lilly is the every-man in search of safety, longing for home, forever cast adrift, as Barry reminds us, again and again, in his continuous references to both Homer and Canaan. And in her every-man-ness, Lilly must also be ordinary, but how Barry does that is by keeping her curiously undefined. She is an observer of all the actions taken around her, and a passive vessel for all the emotions thrust upon her by others, with their huge tides of guilt, and love, friendship and respect, responsibility and fear. Lilly has the strength of endurance, certainly – and that is no little thing, I know — and yet even her endurance seems passive.
I read the book from cover to cover, loving many of its sentences but always looking for something real to hold onto — and not finding it, not in the characters, sharply drawn but left unfilled with substance, or in the plot, a twisting journey dependent on coincidence and violence, or in the underlying theme of an epic journey taken in search of redemption. Beautiful words casting dark shadows: that is On Canaan’s Side, and in the end, it was not enough.