Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Dymphna Nugent’s weekly book review for the Waterford News & Star in conjunction with The Book Centre, John Roberts Square


SEBASTIAN Barry is a stalwart in Irish writing, and one I’ve long enjoyed since the days of ‘The Secret Scripture’. His books have been studied as part of the Leaving Certificate syllabus for English (Days Without End) and have been remade as films with no sign of his popularity ebbing. ‘The Secret Scripture’ remains my favourite of his books, perhaps owing to the raw, visceral honesty of his depiction of Ireland’s treatment of its people under the control of the Catholic Church. It is to this theme that he returns in ‘Old God’s Time’ and the result is nothing short of extraordinary.

Set in the 1990s in Ireland, retired Garda Tom Kettle is settling in to a quieter pace of life in a flat in Dalkey. A widower, Tom is not unhappy but a sense of loneliness pervades the early part of the text. He has lost a sense of purpose, having lost his wife, June, and the day-to-day company of his co-workers. This loneliness is never directly addressed but the eagerness with which he anticipates a visit from his daughter and his former colleagues speaks volumes.

Tom is lost in his loneliness, cloaked in a sense of love, which refuses to abate, that for his late wife but also for the wider humanity. Anyone who has lived through grief can never be the same, as evidenced by Tom, his collective experiences throughout his life make him, at times, a witness to his own story who cannot be trusted. He spends much of his time reflecting introspectively and without any plot, this alone makes Tom an endearing character.

Tom’s story is dark, however, and through this internal reflection, we witness flashes of his childhood spent in Catholic institutions. Both Tom and June were raised in such an institution, raising the question of whether Tom’s enduring love for June is based in part on their status of survivors of shared experiences. Both survived childhood sexual abuse and through their relationship, they formed a healing bond, which allowed them to scaffold one another and raise two children.

Tom’s memories come in the form of slices of the past, glimpses buried in trauma and soothed with the balm of love, a love which was formed from the darkest of foundations. Tom’s newly found time alone forces him to revisit the past, only to find himself consumed with the ache of pity for June and for all of the children in Ireland’s history, who never found their way out, who never found a way to claw themselves out of the horror of their past.

The retired Garda finds himself brought back in to assist on a case, specifically an investigation into a priest who has long been suspected of sexual abuse. Throughout the years, senior officials in An Garda Siochána and within the Church had turned the other way to avoid dealing with the priest, and now the evidence must be uncovered. Tom is the key here, having lived experience of this period in Irish history, however in order to fully investigate the case, he must risk the safety net he has established since childhood, and he must face the full force of his grief and his guilt.

Sebastian Barry handles this story with care, with sensitivity and with love – telling a story such as this is not unique, but he handles it with responsibility, anchoring it with an enduring love, which serves to offer a sense of hope to the reader. Tom Kettle will stay with me for a long time to come.

Dymphna Nugent contributes reviews to the Irish Examiner, the Irish Times, and the Waterford News & Star

By Dymphna Nugent
Contact Newsdesk: 051 874951

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