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The City Of Invention

The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney

On The Wrong Side Of History

On Canaan's Side - Sebastian Barry

Like Sebastian Barry's other novels, On Canaan's Side examines the way individuals are crushed beneath the wheels of larger events and yet somehow manage to maintain a kind of dignity.

Lily's father is the superintendent of police in Dublin at the time of the Irish War of Independence, which puts him and his family on the wrong side of history. Just as he is reaching the pinnacle of his career the whole edifice of British rule in Ireland is disintegrating

Lily is scarcely aware of the changes going on around her but she is deeply affected by the death of her beloved brother Willy in the Great War and when Tadg, a friend of Willy's, returns from the trenches and begins paying her attention, she is moved by his memories of her brother and flattered by his interest.

Unfortunately for Tadg, service in the British Army is not looked on favourably in the new Ireland and like many returning soldiers, he finds it difficult to get work. When the opportunity arises to join a newly formed auxiliary police force, he takes it. But this organisation, nicknamed the Black and Tans on account of its mismatched uniforms, quickly becomes emblematic of everything that is wrong with British rule in Ireland and when Lily's father is tipped off that plans have been made to kill Tadg and Lily, the couple are forced to flee the country.

Even on the other side of the Atlantic they are not safe. Not long after arriving in America, Tadg is gunned down in an art gallery and Lily finds herself alone, penniless and terrified in an unknown country.

The novel opens with Lily in her late eighties, having just buried her grandson Bill, who has hung himself after returning from the war in Iraq. In a state of shock and grief she looks back on the series of tragedies that have punctuated and defined her life.

The story is narrated in a voice that is on the one hand intimate and domestic, and on the other deeply poetic. Sebastian Barry has the gift of investing the most mundane details with significance. Here, for example, is Lily describing an incident from her childhood.

"When I was still a young child my father gave me a necklace of my mother’s. The first thing a child does with a grown-up necklace is burst the thread. The little cultured pearls poured out on the floor, and made a dash for the gaps between the floorboards. He was able to rescue only a half dozen, and threaded them back forlornly or the necklace.
     The others must still be there, a queer memorial to me and my mother, in the darkness.
    A long bit of string and six chastened-looking pearls. Maybe my life is a bit like that."

It's a book about people who are forgotten and, like Lily's mother's pearls, somehow get lost beneath the floorboards of history, but who are no less beautiful and valuable for that.