On Canaans Side

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She does not think it proper to end her life without explanation, however, and she has no suitable audience, so she decides to write down her explanation in a journal.

Books reviews with the occasional interview thrown in for good measure

Her neighbor and friend, Mr. He becomes awkward, unable to console her, and so leaves, and Lilly recalls an earlier time when Mr. Dillinger gave her a book as their friendship was just beginning, which leads her to recall her childhood in Ireland.


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Her father was a policeman employed by the British at the time, just before World War I, when rebellion was in the air and the IRA hated and attacked anyone seen to be colluding with the British. He is appointed Chief Superintendent and the family moves into Dublin Castle, which Lilly finds grand. Tadg becomes one of the infamous Black and Tans, a special police force organized specifically to put down the Irish rebellion. Tadg and other Black and Tan members are ambushed, and several Irish rebels are killed.


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Soon Tadg has a price on his head, and he and Lilly flee to America. Penniless and desperate, Lilly finds her way to Cleveland and spends some time begging. She collapses outside the building where a black man named Catus Blake lives; he takes pity on her and carries her inside and calls his daughter, Cassie. Cassie works for a wealthy woman named Mrs. Wolohan, and secures a job for Lilly in the household.

Wolohan is compassionate, and working there Lilly finds stability and some happiness, becoming best friends with Cassie.

Lilly meets policeman Joe Kinderman, who romances her. She finds Joe fascinating—he is very American, filled with confidence.

On Canaan’s Side Summary

She marries Joe, and becomes pregnant, but Joe disappears, purposefully abandoning her. Lilly starts dating one of Willie's old comrades, Tadg Bere. He signs up for work as one of the Temporary Constables hurriedly hired by the British to help suppress the "Troubles" -- a paramilitary force that soon gained notoriety as the Black and Tans. With a price on their heads, Lilly and Tadg flee to America.

Book Review: On Canaan's Side, by Sebastian Barry

But even under "the generous American sky" Lilly cannot escape violence and the consequences of divided identities. Lilly tells her life story as a near nonagenarian, in the shadow of the loss of her soldier grandson Bill, a veteran of the first Gulf War. In her late days, America appears to her as "a marriage between hope and suffering," which happens to be an excellent description of her own experience in the States. Those American chapters introduce us to the novel's most memorable characters, including Joe Kinderman, her enigmatic second husband another policeman ; and the stoic Mrs.

Wolohan, a Kennedy-esque wife and Lilly's compassionate employer. The plot is beautifully crafted. Lilly's wanderings -- involving stops in New York, Chicago and Cleveland, before she finally comes to a kind of rest on Long Island -- make the story seem episodic, but Barry knows exactly what he's doing; the latter part of the novel has several convincing surprises.

The book is not entirely unproblematic.

Lilly's voice frays at times, and a couple of the historical details are puzzling, though this may be part-and-parcel of having an year-old narrator. All in all, "On Canaan's Side" is a vivid argument in favor of Lilly's and indeed Barry's contention that "there is nothing called long-ago after all. Home All Sections Search.

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a book review by John L. Murphy: On Canaan's Side

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