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In Old God’s Time by Sebastian Barry


In this review, I’m going to take the unusual step of quoting myself. Let me explain: last year I was introduced to the writing of Sebastian Barry through his exquisite Laureate Lectures, which had been bound into a most excellent small volume entitled The Lives of the Saints. At the time, I said that if ever again I encountered such exquisite writing as I had found between these covers, it was because I was furthering my education of Barry’s writing.


Just to recap, then I wrote:

“Barry’s writing is of a calibre few have the privilege of reading. It’s hard to define in the way I struggle to express what it is I love about French movies. In the latter, I would perhaps say that it’s a certain je ne sais quoi that is delivered in the brevity of expression – a twitch of the mouth here; a raised eyebrow there… But when it comes to the lyricism and eloquence of Irish writing, it’s the complete absence of brevity which often elevates the dullest of scenes from the dreary to the majestic...”


And here I am again, trapped in that exquisite place where one part of my brain remains with the book I have just completed while all else goes on around me. It’s the kind of dream-walking I experience after finishing a Tim Winton novel when the whole world can be described in Wintonesque words and phrases. Lyrical, poetical and also strangely dark, with a mesmerising and melancholy underscore. Like listening to a Chopin prelude which is so hauntingly beautiful you become afraid of your own feelings.


Irish to the bone, Barry tackles that which is uniquely, culturally familiar to him: the Irish childhood lived at a time when the Catholic Church loomed darkly over every aspect of society. A time when the church was unquestionably spiritually, emotionally and culturally the supreme authority. Such was the power of the church until recent times, that no person or institution threatened it – not even the police – the Garda - from which the central character, Tom Kettle, has recently retired.


Tom has moved to a small apartment which is part of a rambling castle overlooking the Irish Sea. The other inhabitants are at first a mystery to him, even as his life-long professional habit of keen observation has not yet left him. He’s slowly drawn into their lives while also spending an inordinate amount of time in his eyrie, deep in reflection and reminiscence. In this way, the reader begins to build a picture of his marriage, his children, and the lives of his children. Occasionally he seems to hallucinate their presence, and the presence of others; and these febrile daydreams become more intense after a visit from some former colleagues seeking help with a cold case.


The case involves the gruesome, frenzied, death of a Catholic priest and the conviction of another. Perhaps Tom can help them solve it...?


Just a word of warning: readers expecting a murder mystery might have to brace themselves for the shocking themes Barry tackles in this exquisitely contrived and executed book.


Reviewer: Peta Stavelli

Allen & Unwin

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