On the first day after her grandson Billy dies, Lilly Bere, eighty-nine years old, starts writing down the story of her life before she intends to put an end to it.
Over the next seventeen days she writes in her accounts book a story that starts in Ireland before World War I and ends in America during the gulf war.
Before Lilly was twenty years old she had to flee Ireland with the man she loved when the violence let loose in the country is threatening her and Tadg Bere’s lives.
Once in America life is anything but straightforward as the violence from home follows the young pair across the Atlantic.
Lilly soon finds herself alone and trying to make a life for herself. A life that will be filled with love, loss, friendships and betrayals. A life that will somehow forever be touched by the wars men find themselves caught up in.
I could give a lot more detail about this story, but I don’t think I should. One of the pleasures in reading this book is discovering how Lilly finds her way through life. How she ends up where she is, mourning the loss of her grandson.
Lilly tells her story with great detachment. She rarely dwells on emotions and I found myself reading between the lines to get to feelings that lay below the apparently dispassionate narration.
Because of this detachment it took me a while to get really involved in the story. I think I was about a quarter into the book before I found myself caring about Lilly and what was happening to her. But once I did I found it increasingly hard to put the book down. From not really being interested at all I had gone to being completely invested in Lilly’s life and the resilience of this character.
As Barry takes the reader on a journey through almost a century of history and changes in the world, he also shows the reader how little some things change. History repeats itself time and again until, at last, it’s just too much for even the strongest human spirit to endure.
This is a book I needed to reflect upon for a while once I finished it. Its beautiful and understated tone almost hides the poignancy in its words. Almost, but not quite.
If I could, I'd rate this book 4.5 stars.
“That they wouldn’t allow us to cross into Canaan, but would follow us over the river and kill him on Canaan’s side. The land of refuge itself.”
“We may be immune to typhoid, tetanus, chickenpox, diphtheria, but never memory. There is no inoculation against that.”
“It is possible that no one can tell you anything that you don’t already know. The brain, some part of the brain has picked up the information already, but not the ‘top’ brain, not the bit that thinks it knows things.”