Sebastian Barry at Powell’s
A Little Reading, A Little Singing – No Dancing
The Irish master storyteller, Sebastian Barry, was at Powell’s Thursday. He was an author, actor, singer and regaler of anecdotes all rolled into one, which made for a wonderful hour of entertainment. Barry is touring with his new book, On Canaan’s Side, which was longlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize.
It’s the story of Lilly, who as a teenager was forced to flee Ireland for America with her fiance, Tadg Bere, under threat of death from the IRA. Her rich and tragic life takes her from Chicago, where her fiance is brutally murdered, and then to Cleveland, where she marries and finds happiness even as she survives the Great Depression and WWII. Lilly’s capacity to love is enormous and her compassion, even for those who have wronged her, is amazing.
Barry said, “In a way, the book is Lilly looking for herself, because there’s such an enormous difference between thinking about something and writing down those things. So, it’s a little book she made for herself over 17 days.”
He prefaced his reading by saying, “Tragically for you, I have to sing a little tiny bit. You can complain to the management afterward.” And then he read or should I say performed passages from the book. Barry transformed himself in front of us. His voice changed into a large and booming presence that was full of the characters’ mannerisms and inflections. It was mesmerizing.
When asked where the character Cassie came from, Barry responded thoughtfully: “I’m twenty-six years married. One of the reasons it’s a successful marriage, I think, is because, certainly, when I wake up in the morning, I’m never quite sure who’s beside me. This is a good start. We meet each other every time we wake up. One of the things I envy about women is they have this magical capacity for friendship that I don’t think really men have. I don’t drink, I don’t go to pubs, I don’t play much sport, so I’m not on the playing field. I do notice that my capacity to form a group of men to do anything besides those things is zero. But my wife has wonderful friends. We’re living twelve years in Wicklow and she’s gathered friends around her and they’ve gathered her. I do envy her. One of her friends is a very magnificent person, a magically-minded person and that’s my model for Cassie. She’s a lovely, big, round, comforting, enveloping person.”
Adding more about the close relationships of women he said, “I do envy that, and I suppose not being able to achieve it, even to write about it is somehow to be contingent on that sort of measure of happiness. I don’t know how women do it, but I’ve seen it with my own eyes and wonder what is missing in the way of male DNA that doesn’t allow that quite so easily.”
A number of relatives influenced his path to writing, but Barry said, “I didn’t read or write until I was about seven or eight. Partly because I was a dreamy child… but it was a familiar idea that a person would expound and expand on some thought they had. It’s such a different thing to think something and to speak it and then it’s another thing to write it down. I had a childhood that was based on stories. Indeed, my mother obsessively told us stories – I think, she was almost in a driven way – including about the darkness of her childhood.”
Sebastian Barry is a Costa Prize winner and two-time Man Booker Prize shortlist nominee. His previous novels include The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, Annie Dunne, A Long Long Way and The Secret Scripture. He is also a playwright.