Eighty-nine-year-old Lilly Bere is mourning. Her 20-something grandson, Bill, has just killed himself after returning from the Gulf War, and after a lifetime of loss, she has decided she is done with grieving. So over the course of 17 days she reflects on her life, writing down her memories, planning to put an end to her miseries.
Lilly has known much in the way of suffering and grief, and while she has generally had the tendency to keep her pain to herself and forge on rather stoically past any hurt, she allows herself the indulgence of remembering — and feeling again. She remembers her father, a Dublin police chief, whose politics were never entirely clear to her, his loving youngest daughter, and her first love, with whom she was forced to flee to America when she was still a teenager. She remembers her few friends, those who saved her when she was lost and in dire need. All through her story, she shows gratitude for those caring ministrations even as she relives her heartbreaks.
On Canaan’s Side is at once a portrait of a century in America, reflecting some of its defining moments, and also a portrait of the inner workings of a woman who did what she had to do to take care of herself and those she loved, even while her heart broke open. The novel is a tender character study in most respects, and Sebastian Barry treads lightly enough that he doesn’t pull on heartstrings just for effect, but he poetically allows readers to get inside Lilly’s heart and mind. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this novel, even as sad as it was in so many respects.
Rated: Mild, for some occasional mild language and brief but mild sexual situations. There are a few instances of violence that are fairly brief and not terribly detailed.