Archive for the ‘barry sebastian’ Category


Courtesy of  www.walterscottprize.co.uk

I have no idea, but let me tell you of my hopes.

It’s testament to the quality of contemporary historical fiction (if that is not a contradiction in terms) that this year’s Walter Scott shortlist consists of 7 titles, not the usual 6.  So as the judges were having problems at the shortlist stage, how are they going to determine the winner?  Because there’s no easily separating the five I’ve read.  Deliberations could go something like this:

Sebastian Barry’s already won once, and Days Without End is a much better novel, so he deserves to win it again!

Rose Tremain’s historical novels have won every other prize going. It’s about time she won this one. Let’s declare The Gustav Sonata the winner!

It’s a travesty that Hannah Kent’s first novel wasn’t even shortlisted.  Let’s make up for that now by declaring The Good People the winner!

There’s nothing more powerful that showing the impact of historical events through the microcosm of an individual’s experience.  Jo Baker’s A Country Road, A Tree is our winner.

Our previous winners contain huge amounts of misery and political intrigue. Let’s have a laugh for a change.  The prize goes to Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill!

I obviously can’t advance any arguments (tongue-in-cheek or otherwise) for The Vanishing Futurist and Mothering Sunday, except that the former is in my TBR and the latter is not.

For me, it is a question of which novel is capable of stealing the prize from Sebastian Barry, whose novel has already beaten Francis Spufford to the Costa Novel of the Year Award, and contains awe-inspiring passages of intense luminosity. And yet my doubts as to historical authenticity linger.  The same is true of Spufford’s Golden Hill, which also contains improbable plot twists, but what can you expect from a novel that is primarily a brilliant homage to the 18th-century picaresque novel?  And yet it provides a detailed and spiritual portrait of New York, when it was just a small town.

imageI suspect either Barry or Spufford – if the judges decide to go for the highly original choice –  will take the prize, but, having just finished The Good People, I’m willing Hannah Kent to win.  In short, her reimagining of the events leading up to the tragic death of 4-year old Michael Kelliher in the pre-famine rural Ireland of 1826 is everything I want my historical fiction to be. I need a full interpretation of how things came to be within the context of prevailing societal norms, taboos, beliefs and superstitions.  Kent excels at writing into the gaps of history here – court records tell what happened, not why the two women accused of murdering the child acted as they did.  I was fascinated by the effective and the non-effective herbal remedies at the heart of this novel, and by the conflict between Christianity and pagan folklore. (And I railed at both from time to time.)  The cadence and lilt of Kent’s prose – at times just as lyrical as Barry’s – held me in that time and place. I forgot my own surroundings.  I could feel the cold, hear the fires crackling, empathise with the despair, even as I refused to condone the behaviour.  And I watched as first an individual woman, then an entire town lost their rational minds.  With only hints as to true nature of Michael  Kelliher’s condition, The Good People was puzzling, terrifying, emotional amd utterly absorbing. It well deserves the accolade I hope it will receive tonight.

P.S Even if the judges don’t agree with me on this, they must surely grant that the UK hardback is the most beautiful on the shortlist. From the embossed golden leaf on the cover to the swoonsworthy deckled edges, ’tis an absolute joy to behold and read.


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I don’t intend to do much prize-shadowing this year.  I intend to continue with my #gapyeartravel reading.   But when I saw the shortlist for the Costa Novel award (to be awarded later today) and realised I’d read most of it, what could I do but complete it and determine which novel would win, were I the sole judge?

If the usual rules hold true, the actual prize will probably go to the one I liked least.  Well, that would be Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, which I could not finish. It took far too long to slither anywhere, so at the half-way point I slithered elsewhere.  I would, however, award the physical object, Dust Jacket of the Year.  What a beauty!

Reading my review of O’Farrell’s This Must Be The Place, I find I wasn’t dazzled by it either, though memory tells me that I enjoyed it more than my review would suggest.  Still I’m not going to overrule myself six months later.

Which leaves me to choose between Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End and Rose Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata.  What a contest! Both authors have won the Costa Novel Award previously with  Barry’s The Secret Scripture going on to take the overall Book of The Year Award in 2008. That suggests that the  competition for Lizzy’s award is going to be a close-run thing.  And it is.  My decision will be reached as I write this post!

Let’s take them in alphabetical sequence.

Who would have expected Sebastian Barry to have written a Western? Not me, for sure and so finding myself transported back to the Wild West was the biggest surprise on the shortlist for me.  Barry is known for mining his family’s history, and so Thomas McNulty, the great-uncle who was involved in the Indian wars, makes his appearance in Days Without End.  Not much more is known about the real Thomas, so his tale of gradual transformation from Thomas to Thomasina, and his relationship with John Cole, is entirely fictional, written as a sympathetic response to the coming out of the author’s son.

The historical backdrop, however is anything but fictional, and Barry’s exploration of that ugly time is brutal and unflinching.  Thomas and John find themselves fighting in both the Indian Wars and the American Civil War.  Terms of engagement were different back then, and war crimes were frequent. Barry not afraid to show them. He also demonstrates where the white man could learn from the Native Indians in terms of generosity, compassion and a fluid understanding of gender issues.

Indeed it is the existence of the 19th century Native two spirits that lends credibility to the development of Thomasina.  Yet Barry pushes the plot too far in defence of a 21st century agenda – same sex marriage, adoption by gay couples, opening himself up to a justified charge of anachronism.

That said, Barry’s prose is in a class of its own.  In places, rough around the edges – Thomas isn’t an educated man; his narrative is at times matter-of-fact, at others full of unsentimental heartfelt emotion that brought tears to my eyes.  Descriptions of landscape that you can smell and touch.  Battles are related with an immediacy that have the reader standing sabre to sabre with him.  Simply breathtaking.

And so to The Gustav Sonata and perhaps the saddest character in the quartet of shortlisted novels.

Not that Gustav Perle realises his own sadness.  He suppresses it along with other needs contenting himself to empathise and cater for others.  It’s a pattern established from an early age by his widowed mother, embittered by the outcome of her marriage and the poverty of her widowhood,  and his rich, Jewish and talented school friend, Anton Zwiebel, who wishes to become a concert pianist but is too highly-strung to perform well under pressure.  In adulthood the pattern continues with Gustav becoming a hotellier, always catering for his guests, rather than developing a meaningful relationship of his own.  It’s not until late-middle age that Gustav finds a happy ending and becomes the person he always should have been. A bit of a spoiler there, but I was so happy for him.  Never has a fictional character deserved it more.

A sonata is a musical structure consisting of three main movements: exposition, development and recapitulation. Tremain structures her novel thus. The first section describes Gustav’s childhood in Matzlingen, Switzerland.  The second explains his mother’s embitterment, and, while it does nothing to endear her to the reader, it does explain why she impresses on Gustav the need  “to be like Switzerland. You have to hold yourself together and be courageous, stay separate and strong. Then, you will have the right kind of life.”  The third section repeats many of the rifts of the previous sections though in different chords: the story of Gustav’s father’s heroism in helping refugee Jews from the viewpoint of his lover, Gustav’s continuing generosity to those who need his emotional support, and, finally the recognition of his own nature with some payback from those who have previously taken so much from him.

This is a very smooth and, in places, subtle read.  Tremain infers, frequently through repeated motifs, many drawn from the life and literature of Thomas Mann, who spent many years in exile in Switzerland on account of his Jewish wife.  In addition, the novel taught me things about Swiss history that I did not know.

Can I fault it in anyway?  Only in so far as the names of the main characters might be a subtlety too far.   An English reader would naturally not pronounce the final syllable of Gustav’s surname and would read it as Pearl.  He is, of course, an absolute gem.  Anton’s surname means Onion.  Correspondingly he is the cause of many tears and sorrows.

It’s a minor quibble, and certainly doesn’t stretch my credibility as far as some elements of Barry’s novel.  I’m sorry for that because Days Without End is the novel that bedazzled me while reading.  The Gustav Sonata grew on me while reviewing.  I think that its hidden depths  will better reward further readings. This last consideration tips the balance in Tremain’s favour. She would be the Costa 2016 novel winner if I were making the announcement tonight.

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Tuesday 16.08.2011

In general I prefer events with as little reading as possible unless the public reading is a performance and adds to the text.  And when Sebastian Barry is reading and then I don’t want any talking at all!  Watch this to understand  ….

At this year’s EIBF  he read the shocking scene from the art museum in Chicago (which starts on page 73 of the hardback edition.)  He stood and, as is his wont acted the part, transported the audience and left them stunned (even those who had read the book).  And then he told us that it was his great uncle who had been gunned down in Chicago in similar circumstances.

While Lilly Bere of the book is married to the assassination victim, in reality she was his sister, Barry’s great aunt and the third aunt that he is seeking to reclaim in his fiction.  Alongside her brother, Lilly fled Ireland in terror, under a death sentence from the IRA. It’s only very recently that Barry discovered the true circumstances and there’s not a little anger mixed in with his sadness.   Barry is, therefore,  not only seeking to reclaim Lilly, but to repatriate her.

The novel is a confession – not in the sense of bringing one’s misdeeds to light but in the St. Augustine sense – one of tone, written down to find meaning, to remeet oneself honestly in all the stations of one’s life.  But can those memories be honest after the passage of so much time.  Lilly is 89, after all.  Barry maintains that it is not the accuracy of the memory that is important but its radiance.

The chair, Steven Gale, asked Barry about her language which remains Irish throughout.  Barry quoted Heidigger – language is where we live.  The enforced change of identity in the USA was a great loss.  Lilly would loved to have lived a normal life, to raise her children in Ireland and to have been buried in the same plot of land as her family.  Also it was very difficult for 1st generation emigrants to become assimilated.  All this was very useful, he said.  It meant I didn’t have to do American accents!

How accurate is the fictional Lilly’s life?  I don’t know what happened to Lilly after the assassination, he said, and the power of a novelist to give fictional life to someone who once lived in that complicated thing, real life,  is absurd and disgraceful when you think about it. Talking of an upcoming American tour he is hoping that his American cousins don’t slap him in the face because of some unintended offence. 

A question from the audience asked if Barry had ever considered the ethics of harvesting his relatives in the way he does.  That’s a scary thought he said, I’ve thought so little about it.  I do believe though in the pernicious effects of not telling secrets on generations to follow.  Ironically it was his mother telling him his grandfather’s stories which led to a family rift, after Barry had used them, I think,  in The Whereabouts of Aeneas McNulty.  He and his grandfather never spoke again.  I can only make that up to him, Barry said, by ensuring I never forget him.

On Canaan’s Side is longlisted for the 2011 Booker Prize.  It is the third time that Barry has joined this particular circus.   What does that do to you as a novelist?, asked the chair.  Keith Douglas wrote a poem Simplify me when I’m dead, said Barry. I can only say how wonderful it is to be simplified while I am alive.  And if the Booker prize is a circus, it’s the one I want to run away with.

On Canaan’s Side – Sebastian Barry

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On the day of publication, I suspect there’ll be erudite reviews galore of On Canaan’s Side cropping up all over the blogosphere.  So I’ll start with a digression.  I have discovered how to make the Scottish sun shine!  1) Get halfway through regrouting the bathroom and 2) wait for a rainy Saturday afternoon to finish it.

It wasn’t raining last Saturday.  The plums are ripening nicely …

and the strawberries have outgrown their allotted space and invaded the path.

If not grouting, I should obviously have been weeding,  but I decided my need to read Sebastian Barry’s latest was greater.

The first two paragraphs told me this would be a sad read:

Bill is gone.

What is the sound of an eighty-nine-year-old heart breaking?  It might not be much more than silence, and certainly a small slight sound.

A grandmother mourning her dead grandson, the only relative with whom she remains in touch.  I quite enjoy a sad read – they remind me that my life could be worse, and sometimes lift my mood.  Not so the story of Lilly Bere’s life in which Bill’s death is perhaps the final emotional trauma. By page 94 I was in flood of tears and very pleased to gaze once more on the maverick strawberries.  They made me smile.

I took a break and a few deep breaths.  When I resumed, the first page of book two contains this.

When I was still a young child my father gave me a necklace of my mother’s.  The first thing a child does with a grown-up necklace is burst the thread.  The little cultured pearls poured out on the floor, and made a dash for the gaps between the floorboards.  He was able to rescue only a half-dozen, and threaded them back forlornly on the necklace …

A long bit of string and six chastened-looking pearls.  Maybe my life is a bit like that.

And with that succinct summary of the disappointments of life, I am undone once more.  

To be continued when I am feeling less volatile.  🙂

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At a recent reading, a member of the audience commented that she wanted to take the book home with her only if Barry himself would accompany it.  He was that good and uproariously funny!  I was sitting next to a couple of friends who had already read the novel.  They both commented that it wasn’t at all the voice in which they had read the book.  Excellent, I thought, sometimes being behind the times is an advantage after all.

The genesis of Sebastian Barry’s tale begins in his own family.  One day, while driving near Sligo,  his mother pointed out a little tin hut and commented “Of course, that’s where that woman stayed for many a year”.  That woman turned out to be Barry’s great-aunt.  A little research, the discovery that his relative had been institutionalised for social reasons and a fertile imagination combined to produce this year’s Booker-shortlisted novel.

Roseanne McNulty’s tragedy is a fictionalised account related to that of Barry’s great-aunt; the novel his attempt to reconcile himself to being the member of a family that treated one of its own so shabbily.   Roseanne is one of the lost people – Barry believing that Irish history is told more truthfully by documenting the stories of the losers, not the winners.  Facts don’t always lie on the surface.  They must be hunted, dug out, remembered, misremembered.

Roseanne is almost 100 years old, has been institutionalised for 60+ years and care in the community policies mean her psychologist, Dr Greene, must determine whether she is sane enough to be “freed”.  Her history is not clear.  While Roseanne creates a narrative that makes sense, it is not always factually true.  It becomes clear that she has sanitised her history – possibly to remove the terror from the truth, which involves fearful and loathsome incidents replete in the Irish past.

Barry controls his novel beautifully.  Past psychological policies contrasting with the present (in many ways just as insane).  The narrative voices of Roseanne and Dr Greene contrasting and complimenting.  Dr Greene has troubles of his own, which echo the experiences of Roseanne.  The fascinating, if uncompromising, portrayal of Irish society in a time when one could be institutionalised for simply not conforming to society’s expectations.  The blurring of fact and fiction in the memory.  Misrememberings – not lies.  A mystery – the solution of which is signposted from the middle of the novel.  A solution I was hoping would be avoided. 

The only faux pas in an otherwise perfect novel.  I’m only deducting a 1/2 star but it rankles much more than that.  Could it have been the reason why Ariga triumphed in this year’s Booker?.  The Secret Scripture is much more accomplished than The White Tiger  but the ending is a veritable rafter in the eye and so I have still to fall out with this year’s Booker judges.

Final point – I would recommend The Secret Scripture to all lovers of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox.  There are common themes, yet The Secret Scripture has a broader scope,  documenting not just the personal tragedy of one unjustly incarcerated, but the troubled history of the Irish nation.


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