Book Review: On Canaan’s Side, by Sebastian Barry
I have to say, when I first saw this book (I was given it as a gift by a friend), I looked at the cover and thought, Oh crap. This is going to suck. Without repeating tired book cover clichés, I was wrong. On Canaan’s Side, by Sebastian Barry is an absolutely gorgeous book. The prose are beautiful, fluid and visual. Barry absolutely makes language stand up and march about, and he compels it to do his will with a facility that approaches greatness. It might even be great, although 1) I’m not sure I’m qualified to determine such things, and 2) the story itself was a bit of a downer, so I think I may have lost some love on that count. But downer or not, this is what good writing looks like, and I always enjoy watching someone at work who has such a wonderful command of language.
The story itself is about a woman from Ireland, Lilly, who is writing a reflection on her life in the form of, basically, a suicide note. Sort of a suicide note in memoir form. She begins with her life in Dublin after the end of World War 1, and what follows is a series of misfortunes, deaths, bad luck, and all sorts of things that would break a person weaker than Lilly, which is what is so compelling about her. All of this is narrated with a nice in-and-out movement through time—into the past, back to the present, and back again—in a way that really works and prevents anything from becoming too heavy or morose.
Now, I realize that paragraph would probably be a deal breaker for most people, but I must quickly add, that Barry pulls it off. Despite how grim that sounds, On Canaan’s Side is, at least it seemed to me, an examination of the best things about humanity, about the power of compassion and generosity. It’s a glorious tribute to humanity’s will to live, the strength that we all hope we possess in measures like Lilly has. It is a triumph of friendship and the miracle of strangers. And it is not without hope, for as you progress along in the narrative in Lilly’s suicide note, you start to get glimpses of why it was that none of the tragedies in her life broke her before, and why, despite her great age and most recent sorrow, she might not go through with that suicide by the end. All the while you wonder at it (and I certainly won’t tell you how it comes out). The story is one of hope and tragedy. I don’t know how else to describe it other than to call it beautiful.
“So if it’s that beautiful, why the Hot Princess and not an Epic Dragon rating?” you might ask. And that’s a fair question. The answer is: I’m not sure. I think it was just too dark for me in its way. I mean, yes, I read a lot of fantasy and science fiction, and a lot of that is dreamy happy stuff, or at last brutally victorious in its gory clashing of societies, but that doesn’t mean I require happy endings or great victories. And I’ve read stacks of literary work, so I’m hardly a newcomer to driving investigations of human realities. However, even with the beautiful language of this novel, and even the beauty of the characters themselves, I just never felt happy reading it. I understand life isn’t about feeling good all the time, but, well, I read to be enlightened and entertained, and I seldom want to feel bad for fun. So, lame as that might sound, the lack of a happy-factor contributed to the minus point.
I really do feel like I learned something about humanity with this book, that I gained some tiny insight not only into hardship in a general sense, but in a philosophical one—although not as profound as in other works. I hope I gained something I can use as I get older, for On Canaan’s Side is definitely a story about growing old. I enjoyed reading it very much in that way. I just didn’t enjoy it so much that I leapt off the couch when I was done, with my tail wagging as I ran over here to my computer to tell the world that they should stop what they are doing right now and go read this book. That’s what I save Epic Dragons for. Trust me, nobody wants to read a book that good more than I do. I just haven’t found one in a while.
That said, I think if you enjoy a melancholy look at sweet unforgiving reality, if you are in the mood for a change of pace from Disney endings, tacit political or social lecturing, or the vacant joy of barbaric tales, this is definitely worth reading. I can see myself looking for this one again in another ten or twenty years.