Eighty-nine year old Lilly Bere, an Irish woman living in America loses her grandson Bill, to the First Gulf War, though not in the war but from its after effects.
Over the next fortnight, she writes a memoir explaining to a coroner, predominantly, how she got to this point. In the process, she comes to an understanding of herself too. Sebastian Barry has mined the history of his family before and created three outstanding, wonderful and doleful stories. The three books are: A Long Long Way, The Secret Scripture and On Canaan’s Side.
The narrators in the latter two are elderly women and Sebastian Barry exactly captures their voices. One can hear one’s own grandmother, elderly mother-in-law or whatever, reaching towards Death and looking back over their lives. There is another book Annie Dunne which I will hasten to read, I am not sure how I missed it, but I guess it too will be about someone in his family.
His books are about loss, Ireland, the unfairness of life and about memory and why it matters so much. To anyone who knows at first hand what Alzheimer’s does, these books show us how it robs not only the immediate family but their ensuing generations of something that is really important – their personal history.
I hope to see On Canaan’s Side on the Man Booker Shortlist.