Monday 10 June 2024

Guest review by Caroline Pitcher: OLD GOD'S TIME by Sebastian Barry


"For me, and hopefully for Tom Kettle, redemption and love triumph in this extraordinary story."

Photo: W W Winter
For Caroline Pitcher, writing is like living lots of lives. Mariana and the Merchild, written by Caroline and illustrated by Jackie Morris, will have a new edition published by Otter-Barry books on July 4th.

Recently Graffeg have brought out new editions of Caroline's Lord of the Forest, illustrated by Jackie Morris. and The Winter Dragon, illustrated by Sophy Williams. Now Caroline is dreaming further life stories from her favourite novel, Mine.

Sebastian Barry’s most recent novel is Old God’s Time. It has stayed with me long after reading it, and I shall read it again.

What kind of novel is it? One in which currents of love, grief and heartache, whirl in the mind of retired Irish policeman,Tom Kettle. He distances himself from his past, as if holding off a great weight.

Tom has moved to a lean-to, annexed to a Victorian castle overlooking the Irish sea, with cormorants on the flourish of black rocks. He sees few people, just a couple of eccentric neighbours, one with a gun-rest on the balcony, another an anxious young woman.

There’s a knock at the door. The knocking becomes merciless. There’s a ringing of the bell. Mormons, maybe? Tom pulls his bulky form from his sun-faded wicker chair and sees through the glass door the outlines of two men, though the daylight is `losing its grip on things anyway.’

Two polite young detectives stand there. They defer to Tom, who wonders about the state of his trousers. They say they are investigating a cold case involving two priests, one murdered, one moved on. So, is this book a who-dunnit?

With a strange surge of reluctance and even dread – deep, deep down - Tom busies himself making tea and Welsh rabbit on the damp, evil grotto of his grill. (Afterwards, Detective O’Casey spends half an hour groaning in the jacks.) The wind makes its roistering way across the waters and throws buckets, water tanks, reservoirs of salty water. The detectives stay over. When they leave early, Tom misses them like his own children, and worries, Have they an umbrella?

The past and the present moment wander in and out of each other. In the far shadows of the story hover the shameful abuse of children, including that of orphan Tom and his adored wife June. The abuse suffered by children from priests is never told salaciously. It’s all the more shocking for being so spare. I had to put the book down more than once.

The impact and trauma of the past upon Tom’s beloved family, his wife, son and daughter, has been disastrous. His story flows on, a stream of consciousness, elegiac and soulful, into a whirlpool of memories and emotions. It’s scrambled, occasionally humorous, unreliable, hallucinogenic, suicidal even. Does he face up to his distant or recent past? Is he in the late stages of dementia? Does he go somewhere beyond memory? The power of the writing made me not care to stop and decide.

For me, and hopefully for Tom Kettle, redemption and love triumph in this extraordinary story.

"…could any man have crossed the channel like he had just done….The strange privilege of that. The lovely wildness of it."

Old God's Time is published by Faber.

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