“On Canaan’s Side” by Sebastian Barry – This Novel Did NOT Work for Me

“On Canaan’s Side” by Sebastian Barry (2011) – 262 pages

 Has this ever happened to you in your reading experience?  You read two novels by a writer, and you are impressed with both of them, and both of them wind up on your ‘Best of’ year-end lists.  You eagerly anticipate the next novel from this writer.  The next novel finally arrives, and it is a complete disaster. 

 That is my reading experience with Sebastian Barry.  I read ‘A Long, Long Way’ and ‘A Secret Scripture’ and considered both excellent novels.  I awaited the next.  Then “On Canaan’s Side’ arrived, I read it, and it was indeed a complete fiasco for me. 

 “On Canaan’s Side” contains the memoirs of Lilly, an old, old woman who has out-survived all the people in her life. It seems like every week or so another writer writes another story about the old woman who has survived everything looking back on her life.  

 All of the people in her life have fallen victim to Unearned Tragic Situations.   By my estimate, an Unearned Tragic Situation occurs about every twenty pages.  An Unearned Tragic Situation befalls the heroine’s father, the heroine’s boyfriend, the heroine’s husband, the heroine’s best friend, the heroine’s son, and the heroine’s grandson.     After slogging through one Unearned Tragic Situation after another, it becomes very difficult to slog through the next.  

 An Irish novel should probably never have a young single woman expecting a baby as part of its plot.  This plot line must have been used billions of times in Irish novels.  We really don’t care about the machinations of the priests, monks, and nuns anymore. This is like English writers putting queens, kings, princes, or princesses into their plots.  What a bore. 

 “On Canaan’s Side” starts out on an estate in Ireland, but most of the novel takes place in the United States.  I suppose Canaan is supposed to be meant as ‘The Promised Land’, but at least as much misery occurs in the United States as in Ireland where things are miserable enough.   Lilly lives in Chicago,  Cleveland, Washington DC, and New York State, but the descriptions of these places are so murky and nondescript it really doesn’t matter where she lives.

 By the end of the novel Lilly has lived through so many other people’s Unearned Tragic Situations.   What could be more fitting than she have her very own Unearned Tragic Situation?

6 responses to this post.

  1. Oh dear. But what about the writing? I have yet to read A long, long way (though I’ve had it for a while). I did read Secret scripture – loved the characterisation and the writing, but the ending really let it down for me. Too contrived. I wonder if he is better at writing than he is at plotting?


  2. Hi WhisperingGums,
    When a book gets on the wrong side of me, I have difficulty appreciating its good qualities. This book is quite unusual for me, because usually when I like an author’s other works as much as I do Barry’s, I give them the benefit of the doubt. Not this time.
    I suppose the fact that it made the Booker longlist but not the shortlist was an indication that this book didn’t quite have the acclaim of those two previous novels.


  3. I felt much the same as Whispering Gums about Secret Scripture. The ending really aggravated me, but I liked the writing so much that I’ve kept Berry in mind as someone to try again. This doesn’t sound bad, but it does sound unoriginal. Maybe I’ll go for A Long Long Way when I’m looking to try again.


    • Hi Teresa,
      ‘A Long Long Way’ was my introduction to Sebastian Barry, and I thought it was a very strong novel. I don’t remember being put off by the ending of ‘A Secret Scripture’. I suppose I should make an admission that I have been put off by other Irish novels that seem to overplay the Irish situation or make special claims for the Irish people. Yet I never tire of the novels of Jennifer Johnston, and no novelist is more Irish than her.


  4. I liked the first half of this one (on the strength of the writing) and then creeping dislike grew into major disappointment (and the “fine” writing became quite annoying). To your “Unearned Tragic Situations” (and I second your assessment that Barry uses them frequently as a lazy plot device), I would add “this author really doesn’t know the United States he purports to be writing about.” The Martin Luther King scene was the one that pushed me irretrievably over the edge.


    • Hi KFC,
      I definitely second your addition that Barry doesn’t know the United States very well. He certainly didn’t capture any of the charms of the places Lily lived. Some of the racial plotlines seemed stereotypical. It could very well be that Barry’s lack of grasp of the United States undermined the rest of the novel for me. If he had had a feel for the geography, I could have accepted some of the other parts of the novel.


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