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The Lives of the Saints by Sebastian Barry


If I ever again read such magnificent prose as was found between the close covers of this small but perfectly formed book, it will only be because I am furthering my education of Sebastian Barry, Ireland’s Laureate of Literature. I am humbled to admit that until I picked up this book I had absolutely no previous knowledge of Barry or the multiplicity of literary genres he has excelled in.


When the book arrived, curiously brief and yet with its delicious cover, I couldn’t recall when – or indeed why – I had asked for it to review. With no recall of how it came to be in my possession, I can only assume that I was attracted to the elegant simplicity of the attractive grey and gold cover.


These were, after all, Panettone’s colours of the year in 2021; a fact I knew from my other interests. Perhaps it was their juxtaposition that had interested me. Then again, it might have been the mention of saints which made me assume that I would be enriched by the wisdom within. Or perhaps I do myself an injustice, and it was, after all, the sub-heading: The Laureate Lectures which grabbed my first attention.


Anyway, life will never again be the same. 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.


Show me another race that could write so compellingly about an impoverished childhood that the mundane becomes magical. And, so it is with Barry who speaks in the first lecture of the twilight hours of which accompany the early parenting of twins. The bleak moments when it is all but impossible to continue, with a lack of sleep and absence of funds. Those relentless onefootinfrontofanother nights and the days that follow when all we can do is reach into the reserves of our great humanity to survive.


And then, when Barry talks of his friend, the late, legendary, Irish actor Donal McCann, he brings the great man to life for all of us who never had the chance to meet him; or indeed to witness his spectacular immersion in a play which – without him - was destined for a short run. “This process he achieved… with the most inching, patient, unhurried radical confidence not only in what he was doing … to bring what might be seen as essentially and artificial object, a play, to essentially otherworld and magical life. It was an incremental assault, almost imperceptible, like the slow coming of new fresh weather across a winter benighted landscape.” And later, in the third speech, when he speaks of the vague, amorphous recollections of family members, he describes memory as “indistinct – as if a fog was blowing through it.”


The saints within, and I have before mentioned that it is a small, if exceptionally powerful book, it transpires, are just the ordinary folk of everyday life. And here, even though I am not worthy to kiss Barry’s hem, we coincide. I have always believed that ordinary people have extraordinary lives. And as Barry pays homage to the ghosts of his past, he acknowledges their very rich gift in his present. Without them, he is nothing. And yet, I feel as if in simply reading this book, I have been in the presence of greatness.


Barry’s phrases have been described by other writers as pushing the boundaries of greatness. “Nobody writes like, nobody takes risks like, nobody pushes the language, and the heart, and the two together, quite like Sebastian Barry does,” writes Ali Smith. I wish I had said that.


Reviewer: Peta Stavelli

Allen and Unwin