Sebastian Barry is, perhaps, my favourite modern author. His prose is stunningly beautiful, unsurprisingly poetic (he writes poetry too) and he creates wonderful ‘images’ of the Irish landscape and the other places his narratives take his characters to. Early 20th century Irish history and its frequent brutality is never far from the surface in Barry’s writing, but it usually done with a light touch.
This is a day the land is being absolutely thumped by rain. Millions and millions of little explosions in the fields, making the soil jump. The roots of things I am sure are delighted by it, if it doesn’t actually kill them.
In ‘On Canaan’s Side’ Barry continues the intertwined tales of the Dunnes – with the 89 year old Lilly Bere, the sister of Willie Dunne from ‘A Long, Long Way’. She recounts and contemplates on her life after the suicide of her grandson who failed to cope with the aftermath of being a Gulf War veteran. The narrative goes from rural Ireland, a flight to New York following death threats, to the ‘glittering Canaan’ of Chicago and then on to Cleveland. Her life is at times brutal with frequent upheavals, poverty and trauma – but it is a fantastic story brought to life by Barry’s beautiful prose.
I am dwelling on things I love, even if a measure of tragedy is stitched into everything, if you follow the thread long enough
As in the ‘Secret Scripture’ there is a clever twist in the plot towards the end of the novel, which was less easy to spot in ‘On Canaan’s Side,’ although I won’t describe it as I don’t want to ’spoil’ the plot.
There is such solace in the mere sight of water. It clothes us delicately in its blowing salt and scent, gossamer items that medicate the poor soul
Jules Holland’s ‘Later’ was on in the background on the television in late May 2015; he introduced a singer I hadn’t heard of before who grabbed my attention with her haunting, slightly gravelly voice with wonderful control. It was Melody Gardot singing ‘It Gonna Come’, the opening track from her fourth album.
I looked her up on-line whilst Seasick Steve, Muse and one or two others played. She had an interesting story and a reason for wearing the sunglasses indoors. She had suffered serious head and spinal injuries after being hit by a car that ignored a red traffic light whilst cycling in Philadelphia in 2003. After a stay in hospital of over a year she was left hypersensitive to sound and light. She had used music to help re-establish the neural pathways between her brain’s two cortices.
Within a couple of minutes of her finishing her second song – ‘The Preacherman’ – I had pre-ordered the album; it is wonderful, the songs played on ‘Later’ are perhaps the best and it is an album I have listened to a lot since I bought it – often as an accompaniment to reading.
Her story resonated with me – there were a lot of parallels with my own accident, a driver failing to stop at a red light and the resultant near-death experience. I downloaded her first album, ‘Worrisome Heart’, too, which is much more pared back and has echoes of Billy Holiday , but as I listened to the lyrics of ‘Some Lessons’ the first time I heard something that felt as though she could have been writing about me which left me in floods of tears
Well I’m buckled up inside
It’s a miracle that I’m alive …
To think that I could have fallen
A centimeter to the left
Would not be here to see the sunset
Or have myself a time
They are feelings I have most days – whether it be out running feeling the rain or the sun on my skin, looking out from The Point on the edge of Blackheath, standing on top of a Norwegian mountain, going to the theatre, reading, or just writing a blog post. It sums up the last eight months of my life and probably many years to come – falling slight differently or the same fall with fewer clothes on a warmer day and the crack in my neck vertebra could have been worse and I could have damaged my spinal cord or not survived. It is important though to celebrate the ‘sunsets’, the ‘times’ and the being ‘alive’ rather than dwell too long on what could have happened.
The geographer within me likes a sense of place in a novel, the flâneur within me enjoys others’ urban explorations and the historian within me likes, well, a bit of history. This was perhaps an almost ideal novel, if novel is the right description – it is a mixture a biography, travelogue and novel following the fascinating life of boxer, poet, Dadaist, self –publicist and trickster Arthur Cravan from the early part of the 20th century and the early 21st century’s narrator’s attempts to trace the course of Cravan’s last years – following him from Paris to Barcelona, New York and to his disappearance in Mexico.
There are some definite stylistic nods towards W G Sebald in the intertwining of fiction, travelogue, history and photographs within the narrative. Whether the narrator is a Sebaldian approximation for Lalé is an entirely different matter though. The reader is left wondering, though, about the motives for the increasingly neurotic narrator’s own journey – although all becomes clear by the closing pages.
It is beautifully written and somewhat surprising that it didn’t receive more attention when it was published in 2007. From the acknowledgements, Cravan seems to have been a long term fascination of Lalé and by the time of publication he seems to have moved onto film making so any follow up may not be that likely.
I cannot think of an opening passage that so exquisitely sums up a novel than Steinbeck’s first paragraph
Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gamblers and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men” and he would have meant the same thing.
Oddly, I don’t think I had read any Steinbeck since I was at school, and my dipping in and out of ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ then barely constituted reading; it felt like a rather big omission in what I had read.
Set in the depression of the 1930s when Monterey was a fishing town a bit down on its luck and where the canneries were the main business. The town is just a back-drop to a series of brilliantly drawn, resourceful, mainly working class characters who were living on the margins – including a brothel keeper, a small shop keeper, a number of drifters and casual workers and ‘Doc’, a marine biologist supplying specimens for academic institutions across America. Cannery Row covers their lives and interactions through a series of linked vignettes.
It is a fantastic, beautifully paced novel that left me wanting more so I have already added its sequel, “Sweet Thursday”, to my electronic reading pile.