Book review: On Canaan's Side by Sebastian Barry

On Canaan's Side By Sebastian Barry Faber, 256pp, £16.99

AN 89-YEAR-OLD woman tormented by grief decides not to wait for God to determine the length of her days: "It is only one last bit of a life that I undo," she writes in the accounts book she's been using to record the details of her particular human drama. "Lord, it is nothing, absolutely nothing. A year, or two."

Not so many breaths short of her 90th birthday, Lilly Bere has just buried the twentysomething grandson, Bill, whom she brought up single-handed. Unable to contemplate life without him, her desperation is all the worse for knowing that he took his own life. A veteran of the first Gulf War who returned "as if he had seen one of the devil's miracles", he broke into his old school and hanged himself by his tie.

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From such a bleak, uncompromising premise the wonder is that anything should flower in this Booker-shortlisted offering from Irish novelist Sebastian Barry. But Lilly's reminiscences, noted down because she "cannot do such a terrible thing" as take her own life without explanation, produce healing of a sort, in this powerful meditation on love, war, the strength of family bonds, and the unfathomable instincts of friendship. As Lilly brews the first of many cups of tea the old-fashioned way ("One for me, one for the pot") and sits herself at her red Formica-topped table to give an account of herself, she draws you in as only an instinctive storyteller can, working up a strange, hypnotic magic in the process. With its great sweep from Ireland in the early years of the 20th century to America in the aftermath of Gulf War One, the novel is epic in scope. Epic in emotional range, too.

There's nothing linear in the account, of course. Lilly has had the twin misfortunes to be Irish and American in a century of turmoil and conflict for both countries, and her story tumbles out in quiet chaos as the traumas of the age are played out through her own experience. She is there in the wings - or, more accurately, the kitchen - through two world wars, the Great Depression, Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement. She even bakes a pie for Martin Luther King. If the facts of her life require a certain suspension of disbelief, there's an emotional truth in her storytelling .

As Lilly sits looking out over the shore, pausing to drink in sunsets and endure well-meaning interruptions from visitors come to express their condolences at Bill's death, she introduces long-dead friends alongside companions from her more recent past, all of them leap off the page. There's Tadg Bere, a survivor of the trenches and her own first love, with whom she fled Ireland at the height of the Troubles; and Cassie Blake, the larger-than-life African American woman who took her in at a time of crisis - and shared her cooking secrets during 15 years of shared domestic service; and Mrs Wolohan, her most recent employer, who has let her live on in retirement in a cottage that could have been rented out for profit; and Joe Kinderman, the Cleveland cop who courted and married her - and disappeared when she announced she was pregnant. Then there's Mr Eugenides, the Greek drugstore owner who brings her gifts of honey; and Mr Dillinger, the unfailingly courteous friend of Mrs Wolohan, who will never escape the knowledge that he fled Germany for a new life in America while his wife stayed behind and died in Dachau. Most importantly, there's Lilly's one-time friend, now dead and not mourned - Mr Nolan, the Tennessee-raised gardener who warmed to her because of their shared Irish heritage, even though he had never been to the old country himself. What was it that Mr Nolan did that could make tolerant Lilly cry out for him to burn in hell? The question hangs over the running drama of this life that stretches credulity, yet somehow, thanks to the warmth and richness in Lilly's narration, retains the ring of truth.

With seven decades condensed into the two weeks it takes to recall them at a kitchen table, inevitably there are gaps. Time speeds up and slows down at will - 15 years with Cassie are despatched in a single sentence; 20 years as a solo mother, and another 20 as a grandmother, are sketched in little more. A side of you objects to this - can two such crucial lives, a son's and a grandson's, be so easily summarised? Yet you are swept along by events, aware that something much bigger than Lilly's life is the point of all this, not always certain what that is.

A dancing bear causes terror and shame for Lilly's policeman father at Dublin Castle near the start of her story; a bear, no threat now, dances out of the fog of her imagination near the end. Memories aren't always connected by reason, but Barry proves more adept than most at twisting their threads together with narrative panache.

• Sebastian Barry is at Edinburgh International Book Festival on 16 August.