Old God’s Time by Sebastian Barry

Reviewed by Rod McLary

Sebastian Barry is one of our finest writers.  His previous novels have twice won the Costa Book of the Year [in 2008 and 2017], the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and two have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize.  Days Without End and A Thousand Moons, his two most recent novels, both tell the story of Thomas McNulty and John Cole and their experiences during the American Civil War and the Indian Wars.

Old God’s Time is a very different novel.  Concerned with love, family and memory – and memory’s unreliability – the novel is one which is almost poetic in its language and rhythm.  The writing style echoes the workings of memory as recollections of the past intrude and are questioned and revised as further recollections come to mind.  As the protagonist reflects: ‘Enough time goes by and it is as if old things never happened’ [166].   The novel is a marvellous psychological exploration of a man burdened by tragedy and whose strategies to contain those tragic memories gradually dissolve.

It tells the story of Tom Kettle – a retired Detective Sergeant – who has retreated to a small village in Ireland to live out his retirement and ‘to be stationary, happy and useless’ [2].  Nine months after retirement, two detectives come to his door bringing about ‘a strange surge of reluctance and even dread’ in Tom’s heart.  The detectives are investigating a matter involving a priest and are seeking Tom’s recollections about ‘the dreary accounts of wretched allegations’ [26].

But these allegations – these ‘wretched allegations’ – awaken unsought memories of his dead family: his wife June, his daughter Winnie and his son Joseph.  To avoid confronting the reality of their deaths and his memories of how the deaths occurred, Tom talks about June, Winnie and Joseph to himself – and sometimes to them – as if they were all living.  There is one heart-wrenching vignette in which Tom welcomes Winnie to his home, offers tea, and asks where she is living.  Winnie answers ‘Yes, Daddy, the cemetery’ [88].

As children, both Tom and June were incarcerated in the Irish orphanage system and both were physically and emotionally abused by the nuns and brothers in charge – and June was sexually abused from age six to twelve by a priest.  Tom alludes to his ‘being used by the brothers’ and describes the harsh and unremitting beatings that he endured at their hands.  Both carry the immense burden of their respective destructive childhood experiences into their marriage and their family life; but with effort are able to suppress those memories and keep them locked away.  But memories whether for good or bad inevitably come to the forefront and demand attention; and it is the detectives’ visit which brings the worst of Tom’s memories to the surface.

But our memories are notoriously unreliable and truth is fluid.  Tom needs to tell his story but to someone who wouldn’t hear it, and he is given an opportunity when his neighbour plays a cello concerto to him one afternoon.  The piece is Kol Nidrei which is sung on the eve of the Feast of Atonement – all one’s oaths and promises made during year are put aside and cancelled.  While Kol Nidrei is being played, Tom relives in his mind the sequence of the events which lead to June’s suicide, the subsequent death of their daughter Winnie and the murder of their son Joseph in New Mexico.  Tragedy after tragedy unfold in Tom’s mind – with amendments and corrections as he recalls the sequence of events and, at the heart of his story, a bitter act of revenge.

The author of Old God’s Time demonstrates considerable empathy for a man tortured by his memories and the tragic losses he has endured.  There is a definite pleasure in reading a novel where the language and the narrative are of such quality.  Highly recommended.

Old God’s Time

[2023]

by Sebastian Barry

Faber

ISBN 978 057133 278 6

$32.99; 261pp

 

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