On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry

I very nearly bought The Secret Scripture (another Sebastian Barry novel) a few years ago, but decided against it at the time as I hadn’t heard much about it.  On Canaan’s Side is Barry’s latest novel and was being offered free as a proof copy on Waterstone’s ‘Read and Review’ page a while ago.  I put my name down, was chosen to read it before publication, and it arrived in the post a few weeks ago.  Having devoured it, I liked it so much that The Secret Scripture is now right back on my to-read list!

The quality of the writing in this novel was a joy to read – in fact I knew I was going to enjoy this as early as the first few pages!  There’s a beautiful description of a much-loved porcelain doll which the narrator, Lilly, owned as a child and which was accidentally dropped, shattering the doll’s face.  Now, as an old lady, Lilly has found out that her grandson, the only family she has left in the world, has died and she recalls this incident.  She wonders: “What is the sound of an eighty-nine-year-old heart breaking?” and compares it to the sound of her precious doll smashing on the ground.

Lilly has a good awareness of everything going on around her, despite her age, and is recounting her life story from childhood to the present day.  She has suffered a lot of tragedy, and we share her pain.  The author is very good at showing what has happened in Lilly’s life, then asking the reader to reach out for more, creating the need to feel and understand more.  You are encouraged to read more between the lines, but there is definitely enough of a story in place to prevent frustration.  You truly feel that you understand Lilly and are taking part in her story.

I loved this book for allowing me to see what she sees and feel what she feels.  It’s full of heart, and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it.  Waterstone’s ‘Read and Review’ page is great for exploring different books and trying something new – I doubt I would have read this book if I hadn’t won it.  I’m slightly worried that having found out about it lots of people will put their names down and win all the books that would otherwise come to me, but I still think it’s worth spreading the word as it’s a great scheme!  You do need to be a card holder but you can find out more here:


On Canaan’s Side is published 4th August 2011.


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