2011 Long List – On Canaan’s Side – Sebastian Barry

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Sebastian Barry has been short listed for “A Long Long Way” in 2005 and “The Secret Scripture” in 2008 and I’m at a loss to explain why his latest novel didn’t figure in the final six this time around. One explanation could be that similar themes of loss and ageing, memory etc is the feature of Julian Barnes’ “The Sense of an Ending” but surely there is room for books which cover similar themes (quite differently) on the short list? It could also explain why “Half Blood Blues” is on this list over “Far to Go” both being Second World War tales or “Jamrach’s Menagerie” over “Derby Day” (which I’ve started) with their Victorian themes and styles. Even “Snowdrops” getting a short list gong over “The Last Hundred Days” and their Eastern Bloc themes.
However I personally I believe Barnes’ novella is a far greater work than Barry’s, but having said that in my opinion this book is more worthy of the shortlist than a couple of others that did make it.
We start off with our writer, Lilly Bere, completing a diary after the death of her grandson and each “chapter” is “First (etc.) Day without Bill” as she flashes back 70/80 years and recounts her life in a mainly linear fashion right up until the present day.
Although Lilly is Irish she has settled in America and her failing memory and heartfelt loss comes to the fore very quickly.
This is a heart breaking novel, where each revelation or meeting, reveals the diarist’s pain and a wonderful lament on loss and the insignificance of a single life. Perfectly pitched and paced with flashes to the present to break up the memories, it is very plausible that this could be a 90 year old person’s diary.
Numerous other reviews and posts refer to the linkages to Barry’s other works so I won’t go into that detail here, and this novel is a stand alone piece, which does not need you to have visited any of his other books.
The only personal criticism I do have is I cannot understand the inclusion of Martin Luther King as a minor character (unless it is Lilly name dropping?) and the ending I did have to read a few times as though I was in a dream state. You’ll understand what I mean if you read this novel.
Personally I think this one should have been on the shortlist and although I still have 2 of the long list to go my shortlist would have been:
The Sense of an Ending
Jamrach’s Menagerie
Half Blood Blues
On Canaan’s Side
Pigeon English
And for the sixth? I’m not sure but probably The Sisters Brothers
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