Irish writer Sebastian Barry—twice shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, called by Salon "the best prose writer in the English language"—is one of the most ambitious writers today. His new book, On Canaan's Side (Viking, 272 pages, $25.95), the latest in his series of novels documenting the epic travails of the Dunne family, touches on two world wars, the Irish Republican Army, the Great Depression, the Vietnam War and the Persian Gulf War, each one refracted as personal tragedy into the life of its 89-year-old protagonist, the resilient Irish émigré Lilly Bere.
This pan-sentimental ambition, unfortunately, turns out to be the book's undoing. Because Lilly Bere, indeed, can't catch a break. If there is a war, her brother will die in it, her son will disappear, her grandson will disappear himself because of it. Husbands are killed or they run away. All jobs are demeaningly servile, offered by the petty to the virtuous.
When George Eliot wanted to capture the spirit of an age, she cast her net of characters as broad as life itself; Salman Rushdie, on the other hand, made sly postmodern winks at the sublimed Hegelian moment. But as here, when a whole century of trans-Atlantic heartache is episodically brought to bear on one unfortunate, unlikely human life—without even a lick of irony—we have landed ourselves deep in the territory of melodrama, an Irish American Tragedy forever drowning a girl in the lake. One disappointment is hardly absorbed before we have moved on to the next, each heartbreak not a function of character but rather of the capricious and cruel nature of the world, which moves terribly swiftly. Lilly Bere can't catch a break.
The story is told nonetheless as measured recollection, from the vantage of an old woman whose heart has reached its limit. It is a tone and cadence that might be familiar from Marilynne Robinson's Home and Gilead, less the voice of a person than of memory itself: lyrical intensity stretched tightly across the frame of a slow, dignified cadence. But where Robinson's palette is thought and reckoning and redemption, Barry aims to depict pain itself, as arrived at through a long chain of event and simile.
This voice is delivered with estimable skill—Barry really is a writer with a wonderful ear for the music of a sentence—but this music also masks a certain sloppiness in the image, a limpness in the metaphor. Even in the koan of the book's second sentence, "What is the sound of an eighty-nine-year-old heart breaking?" we have all the accoutrements of sympathetic pain, and yet fundamentally it is a hollow high-drama manipulation, something that should be uttered by a comic Mrs. Raftery in a Grace Paley story. Because tragedy laid this thickly and earnestly, with dialogue so threateningly on the nose ("The war did something to me, Ma"), becomes not sad truth but simple dishonesty.
SEE IT: Sebastian Barry reads at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Thursday, Sept. 29. Free.