cover image On Canaan's Side

On Canaan's Side

Sebastian Barry. Viking, $24.95 (272p) ISBN 978-0-670-02292-2

Lilly Bere is an 89-year-old retired cook living in the Hamptons in Long Island in Irish writer Barry's latest novel (after The Secret Scripture). Lilly is mourning her grandson, a veteran of the first Gulf War, who has just committed suicide. But this is hardly the first loss she's had in a life spanning continents and many other wars. Born and raised in Ireland, Lilly's first encounter with loss comes when her brother Willie is killed in WWI. A fellow soldier, Tadg Bere, comes to pay his respects to the family and woos her in earnest soon after. The young couple has no time to marry, as Tadg, enrolled in the Black and Tans, an auxiliary police force, is implicated in an ambush of IRA militia men and a price is put on both their heads. They flee to America under assumed names, hoping to start a new life there in safety with the help of some extended family in Chicago, but the past catches up with them. Over the subsequent decades, Lilly is tossed around her adopted country, grappling with the distance from her homeland. She's fascinated by the expansiveness and vigor of America despite her unceasing heartache over the generations of men and their war service. Barry's skills are evident as he tenderly unspools Lilly's story, with a fine eye for intimate moments, but the final impression of her life against its historical backdrop is clouded by the familiarity of many of the novel's elements and the schematic way each additional emotional blow falls relentlessly, tugging at the reader's heartstrings with diminishing force. (Sept.)