Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 4, 2023

On Canaan’s Side (2011), by Sebastian Barry

On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry is apparently No 4 in Sebastian Barry’s Dunne Family series, but No 1, The Steward of Christendom (1995) which introduces the character Thomas Dunne, is a play, so I haven’t read it. However, (pre-blog) I read No 3, A Long Long Way (2005) but Annie Dunne (No 2, 2002) waits on the TBR so I am reading the series out of order and need to get on with it so that I am done with the Dunne family. (Sorry about the irresistible pun).

#Digression: With whom BTW I share an ancestor called Patrick Dunne but since there must be thousands of Patrick Dunnes in Ireland, I know nothing about him at all except that he was a musician. As nearly all Irishmen were, with their fiddles and beautiful singing voices.  But perhaps he played the harp, or flute, or a cello?  I fancy him at a grand piano playing Beethoven, but that’s only because I may have inherited that gene…


On Canaan’s Side was longlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize and won the 2012 Walter Scott Prize, but although I enjoyed reading it, I got the feeling that Barry also was done with the Dunne Family.  On Canaan’s Side is indeed a lovely book, but old ladies looking back on their lives can be a bit melancholy, and this novel certainly is.

Lilly Bere has plenty to be melancholy about.  She fled Ireland with Tage Bere to America to avoid retribution for his work as one of the Black and Tans, and her daddy was able to warn them about it because he was a member of the police force before the Republic took over, i.e. he was in the business of suppressing the rebellion too.  As Alice Zeniter wrote so perceptively in The Art of Losing (translated by Frank Wynne, see my review) there are always people on the losing side in any conflict and the risk to their lives is never over even after the dust settles.  I am fascinated by societies in transition, especially after civil wars of one sort or another, because the people are sorely tested by old loyalties and betrayals, whichever side they are on.  And not just by those with vengeance in mind, but also by their own hearts.

The novel begins with the death of Lilly’s grandchild Bill, who took his life after fighting in one of America’s interfering wars.  It is, she tells us, the event that breaks her eight-nine year old heart, and it seems she has nothing to live for, other than the labour of writing down her memories.  It’s not clear why she’s doing this, because there is no one left to read it.   If there are  members of the family still living in Ireland, her life’s trajectory means that she has lost touch with them all.  She lost Tage long ago, and she’s lost touch with a bigamous husband as well.  If she had any dreams of replacing what she lost with a grand new family in America, it never happened for her.

So this is an old woman’s lamentation on the losses of her long life.  Though she lives through tumultuous times, her own life is insignificant.  She has menial work, she has no pastimes that bring her joy, and her sole satisfaction seems to be serving others, as a lover, a parent or grandparent, or a friend.  Things happen to her, but she has no agency, no capacity to take control of her life and make something of it that will bring satisfaction and contentment.

Generations of ordinary women have had lives like this: dependent on men from cradle to grave and not just for the roof over their heads.  Not just captive to the expectations for women of her era, she has a life blighted by fear of settling scores from long ago.  But even Sebastian Barry’s skill as a wordsmith can’t elevate this melancholy chronicle to become an absorbing novel…

Tony Messenger thought it should have made the Booker shortlist. 

Author: Sebastian Barry
Title: On Canaan’s Side
Cover design by Faber (and yes, you can tell)
Publisher: Faber and Faber, 2011
ISBN: 9780571273638, pbk, 256 pages
Source: personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh, $29.99



  1. I reviewed this in 2011 and you left a comment saying how it was in your TBR and you were looking forward to reading it! LOL.

    BTW, it doesn’t matter which order you read the Dunne novels cos they’re not chronological. My favourite is Annie Dunne, which is hard work but rewarding, especially when you realise the naughty little boy in the story is Sebastian Barry himself.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well so I did, and BTW what a great review you have written! Who knows, I might have loved it too if I’d had Barry’s Irish lilt in my head as I read…


  2. I’ve only read one Sebastian Barry – The secret scripture – which I removed really liking. I have The long long way on my TBR but haven’t got to it yet … I wasn’t aware of the Dunne series!


    • There’s another series about the McNulty Family. I’ve read The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty and I believe its sequel is The Temporary Gentleman.
      I liked The Secret Scripture too, and also Days without End. He has a wonderful way with words, I just feel that this one isn’t up to his usual standards.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. John Donne wasn’t above punning on his name Lisa so I don’t think you should apologise – you’re in good company :-D


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