Old God’s Time by Sebastian Barry

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Reviewed by Harriet

As I was reading this book, with great enjoyment and amazement, I was saying to myself – how am I ever going to review this? The story twists and turns, facts that you take for granted turn out to be false or illusory, even people and things that appear (I’m thinking of a unicorn) prove not to exist. The whole book, although told in the third person, takes place inside the mind of Tom Kettle, a retired policeman. For most of the time he is sitting in a wicker armchair in his flat, which is inside a fake gothic castle in Dalkey. From his chair he can look out over the Irish sea, with its fishing boats and cormorant-inhabited island. He is a widower,  and his thoughts often turn to his beloved dead wife June and to his two adult children. He hardly ever sees anyone, so he is surprisingly pleased when he gets a visit from two former colleagues, Wilson and O’Casey. This is not just a social call, though – they have come to ask for his help on a case they’re investigating. What it is exactly we don’t find out at once, though Tom knows. Later we learn that a priest has been suspected of sexual abuse for many years, but the powers that be in the church and the police have been covering it up and refusing to investigate. When the two detectives tell Tom that this case is connected with the murder, many years ago, of a priest known to be associated with the current suspect, he reacts strongly: ‘Ah no, Jesus, no lads, not the fecking priests, no’. What he would have liked to say, but didn’t, was:

Jesus, go home, boys. You are bringing me back to I don’t know where. The wretchedness of things. The filthy dark, the violence. Priests’ hands. The silence … Murder, you could murder, you could strike, you could stab, shoot, maim, cut, because of that silence….He felt it now. Burning. The fullest humiliation of it felt afresh. Still present and correct, after all these years.

If you thought you were in for a conventional detective story, think again. Though Wilson and O’Casey reappear from time to time, it’s Tom’s memories and regrets that take centre stage. Like so many children of his generation (we are in the 1990s) he was abused by a Christian Brother, and June was repeatedly raped by a priest; the trauma has stayed with them both throughout their lives. Thinking about it all, Tom recognises the horror of it:

Many a soul put out like a candlewick in the sea of that lust. The ocean of lust pouring down on a little light, and never to travel again the bright breast of the earth, and come up again like a daisy, a bright yellow daisy of light, on the other side, as the gathering sunlight of a new morning. Quenched and obliterated.

The final result for June had been almost unbearably painful, though we don’t learn that until almost the end of the novel. There is hard reading here, hard but necessary. As for Tom, he has other trauma to deal with, again not revealed at first. What does become clear from early on is the unreliability of his memories and the trustworthiness of what he sees, or thinks he sees, in the world around him. Tom is well aware of this himself: ‘He was clearly going mad. But he had read somewhere that the truly mad would never know they were mad. He knew he was mad. Was that a proof of sanity?’

Certainly, then, this is a novel about abuse and trauma, but it’s also about love. Tom’s love for June shines with astonishing brightness throughout, and for all the years they had together kept their heads above the threatening waters of their desperately sad and shocking memories. The two children have also been bright lights in his life, although there are painful revelations to come there also – the trauma of their parents has somehow been transmitted to them too. 

Barry’s writing, as always, carries exceptional beauty and power. He has confronted the iniquities of the Irish church before, in The Secret Scripture, but never with such compelling evidence. He has described a glimpse he once had on a visit to Dalkey with his mother, aged about seven, of an old man sitting in a chair, smoking a cigarillo as he looked out to sea. The vision stayed with him all his life and now, having reached the same age as Tom:

in a sense has allowed me – now at the same age that man was when I saw him myself – to sort of slip into his body and talk about a lot of things that have really bothered me as a grown person in my own life and as a citizen of this country. My aim is to love my country, and so to love it you have to know it well and maybe forgive it a few things.

This is a hard novel to do justice to. It’s deeply moving but also, believe it or not, wonderfully uplifting. I shall be reading it again.

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Harriet is one of the co-founders and editors of Shiny New Books.

Sebastian Barry, Old God’s Time (Faber & Faber, 2023). 978-0571332779, 272pp., hardback.

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