I’ve been here before , you think, I’ve seen this movie before: the detective, cashiered or retired or disabled, his one-time colleagues can’t let him go, there’s a three-quarters cold case they need his help with. And Sebastian Barry is a writer who in his darksome romances offers, perhaps even craves, proximity to popular films, to genre, to Westerns and war movies and noir. He does a stunning set piece, often of a violent nature (say, the all-Ireland boxing match in A Long Long Way (2005), with its riven partisan spectatorship of squaddies), but he is just as adept at writing about little or nothing. He is a master of pacing, happy to loiter and linger, and then to accelerate effortlessly away. His books come with overt drama and striving, identifiable, somehow lopped or inadequate or stymied characters to root for. They are composed in plain but inventive language that seems like it must have been fun to write, and they generate suspense. They know enough to go into a higher gear in the last five pages, and they end like thrillers, with a crisis, a death, a surprise. Old God’s Time is his tenth novel and his fifth Booker Prize nomination; perhaps it’s time he won.
The arresting thing about Barry’s novels is the way they show a character rattling around in their life like a single shoe inside a shoebox. Yes, they are solitaries, many of them, widowers and orphans, a bewildered and jilted soldier, but they are also short of something like a shoe bag, some insulation or wrapping, excelsior or foam peanuts, something to stop the terrible rattling. They have a ‘narrative’ which they understand and continue to prosecute, but the identification is imperfect; there is space, dissociation, an element of discomfort. How did they get here, they think. What are they doing? Is there an exit, a solution? There is something loyal and submissive about them, but when goaded they turn contrary, quixotic, unpredictable. Barry encourages them to seek the meeting point – less often found, perhaps, in an actual individual life than in fiction, and less often in fiction than in cinema – of history and justice. A sentence from the new book might serve as a description of them all: ‘Never done anything, but just the once.’
Barry’s hero here is a retired detective, Tom Kettle. The time is the mid-1990s. Kettle has recently moved into a small flat built onto a 19th-century castle in Dalkey, South Dublin. He likes where he is, enjoys its simple pleasures: his view of the Irish Sea when he sits smoking his cigarillos ‘in his sun-faded wicker chair’, ‘the few weeks of the rhododendron’s heartfelt blooming’, a heavy and untutored man-alone diet that suggests an imminent face-off between heart attack and food poisoning. Perhaps he even enjoys his solitude. ‘Retired’, he keeps telling himself and anyone who will listen, but his condition is provisional. Kettle’s books are still in boxes, and he hasn’t moved in or on. He is still effectively in numbered boxes himself, rattling away. In the seventeen chapters of Old God’s Time, we – and he as well – get to see what’s in them.
Change the figure. Not the seventeen, that’s a given, but the boxes. Barry keeps gently, incrementally adding to our knowledge of Kettle, and Kettle’s of himself. ‘A human person could only be revealed slowly,’ author and character concur in saying. Try instead the layers of an onion, the veils of character or varnish, the scars of experience. Pick, pick, pick; reveal, reveal, reveal. People visit him, first a couple of junior detectives in a rainstorm (they end up sharing his supper and staying the night), the next day Fleming, his former boss, bunking off from a police dinner in the vicinity for a strange chinwag. Kettle is invited back to Dublin, to the old headquarters in Harcourt Street, a scene which is weirdly doubled because, without telling us (it’s a very jolting effect, and superbly managed by Barry), he hallucinates a different one first. He runs into Mr Tomelty, his landlord, out and about in town in his ‘thirsty beast’ of a Daimler. He belatedly meets the neighbours who occupy the castle’s Drawing Room Flat and the Turret Flat: the one a cellist with a long-range rifle who pots the cormorants on Dalkey Island for a pastime (like many creatures in the book, they don’t know what’s hit them), the other an actress with her son, on the run from her abusive husband in London.
Above all, and increasingly, he meets resurgences, revenants, reiterations of his own past. This is the ‘old god’s time’ of the title: a fragrant Irish expression for a period so long gone it’s almost beyond memory to retrieve. There is Kettle’s enchantingly happy marriage with June, their daughter, Winnie, their son, Joe, and what happened to them. Beyond that, he remembers his abusive orphaned childhood, his escape into the army, to serve first in Palestine as a peacekeeper, then with his old Lee-Enfield as a sniper in Malaya, from where he returned home – out of the fire, into the frying-pan – and joined the Gardaí. The case he is finally summoned to, by numerous ineluctable internal and external factors, and so much to his surprise that he isn’t even able to be frightened – but we are, for him – is his own.
We begin, though, with the sound and smell of Kettle, rattling around in his semi-grand (‘beauty board’) annex. Gradually, we start to pick up on an insistent obstruction or interference in many of his impulses: ‘He felt a little lock in his smile before it reached the full width of older days.’ ‘He would have drawn the curtains, he thought, if he had had curtains.’ He feels, at one point, ‘not uninterested, but with a strange surge of reluctance and even dread – deep deep down’. ‘He more or less laughed, not a full laugh, a sort of dampened chuckle.’ ‘He dragged off his coat as if it were a mental hindrance and let it drop to the floor.’ From this oddly encumbered, shy, somehow reinhibited manner – as though he were impersonating a human being from hearsay, and not doing a terribly good job of it – we move out to his contacts, his social behaviour, his professional and personal life, his colleagues and neighbours, the fact that he is a widower, that he has a bone to pick with the paedophiles protected in the Irish priesthood (bad apples or a rotten crop?) who destroyed his wife and damaged him, that his children are gone, that what once looked like a successful life has – as per Larkin – a hole in it, and is in any case soon to be over.
Change the figure again. Not so much layers, not so much the actual physical phenomena of person and event, as optics. Barry, in his characteristic authorial position of close third person, seems to be twiddling the sights on a scope, from planetary to subatomic. This is an intensely particulate novel. Much of it is put together from the pyrrhic, verbless sentences of a continually interrupted internal communion, the bits of auto-interrogation that in Ulysses were dubbed ‘personal catechism’. Kettle, who calls himself ‘inquisitive’ and whose career has witnessed the arrival of forensic science, is fascinated by particles. His well-worn consciousness has gone intermittent on him, and reality – even unreality – comes to him piecemeal. A material man with few rivals in fiction (maybe early Beckett?), a collocation of toilet, cigarillos, yellow bathing trunks, bitty sentences, sausages, haircut and trembling, above the neck he is all worry and reset. Antimatter trumps matter with him. Instability, unicorns and a strange gorgeousness with inexpensive ingredients. ‘The sunlight stuck its million pins into the pollocky sea.’ He is drawn to the idea of those gamesome things called ‘neutrinos’, the havoc they play with seeming reality, with files of diligently collected evidence even:
Now these hundreds of pages lived at the top of the rough cupboard. Neutrinos passed through them also, trillions of them, neutral, indifferent, on their way down into the floor, into the earth and through the earth herself at nearly the speed of light. They passed through his tumbling mind, all its channels and sparks, the static-ridden radio of Tom Kettle … They passed through his vulnerable soul, itself an item so large it was not there either, at least to a neutrino.
Scale, connection, consequence are all subject to intense doubt. Kettle sees the moon rise behind Dalkey Island, and it feels like an eclipse; each time he looks at it, it’s in a different pane of the window. Wave or particle? Continuous or discontinuous? ‘He stood at the picture window and the sea was a million grey dinner plates below, surging in the channel.’ Things, scenes, times come in and out of focus, willingly and not. His perspective zooms in and out, ahead and back. ‘There must have been a revolution in rifle scopes when he wasn’t paying attention.’ Visions of Malaya keep him up past dawn. Potting natives, potting cormorants. The UVF car bombs in Dublin and Monaghan in 1974. ‘The fucking Brother from Tipperary.’ Father Joseph Byrne and Father Thaddeus Matthews. Lee-Enfield and Remington. Bruch’s Kol Nidrei cello concerto. And always June, June, June. Courtship, holidays on the Isle of Man, life. Things long dissolved in him crystallise, and of course vice versa. For such a physically embodied book, it is also exhilaratingly ethereal:
If he were looking for citizenship, it might be of this miraculous bay. Child of nowhere, he could claim rights over this, this vast vacancy queerly filled, both empty and full. He was just an old policeman with a buckled heart, but if he had known how, he would have sucked the whole vista into himself, every grain of salt and sand and sea, swallowed it whole, like one of those old whales in the loved museum, like a monster in an ancient story. All this blue and different blue and greens and acres of blown white, and the mysterious golds and silvers of the after-rain.
Between the moon and the neutrinos, and bedevilled by both, is Ireland and the matter of Ireland and the matter with Ireland. Barry – or Kettle? – keeps up a droll thread of running commentary throughout the novel:
A date in Ireland was always a bothering thing. 1911. Was that the Wexford Lock-Out or the visit of the English king? It was both, but it was never both in Ireland.
When Irish weather stepped up to the plate you couldn’t wish to be anywhere else in the world.
One of that legion of Irish summer days that let you down after the promise of morning, like betting on favourites at the races.
The Irish people. Poor stragglers stuck on the edge of Europe. Took a wrong turn on some ancient landscape. Could go no further and could not go back.
These little aphoristic eye-rolls – too inward to be external, some of them, too familiar to be entirely serious, others – are just one more facet of a clever, tender, bountiful novel, a joy to quote and a joy to read, which keeps eye and mind in rare balance.
And for the part of Dalkey’s finest, ‘most excellent, most treasured Detective Sergeant Thomas Kettle, the cream of the coppers, the heart of the rowl … with his large, bandy body, and his belly, and his beat-up boxer’s face … a big, bulking, sulky old man from Ireland … a big man, yes, a paunchy man, with strong arms, his bashed old face, his thinning mop’, Brendan Gleeson, he of the open warmth and secret sorrow and abundantly lived-in quality, would seem to be nailed on for the film adaption. I surely won’t have been the only reader of Old God’s Time to think so, or, thinking, to wish it.
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