The mind of Tom Kettle, the widowed “old policeman with a buckled heart” who is the protagonist of Irish writer Sebastian Barry’s ninth novel, is so captivating that even when you are not sure if he’s describing real or imagined events, what he is saying sounds truthful. Whether Tom is smoking cigarillos while watching cormorants bobbing on the Irish Sea, seeing ghosts or helping former colleagues investigate paedophile priests, the pellucid prose and near perfect pacing of Old God’s Time rarely falter.
In the mid-90s, when sexual abuse in the Catholic Church came to light, Tom is shaken from his retirement in Dalkey by the arrival of two Dublin Garda who are investigating a notoriously nasty priest. They think Tom knows something that could help them but, at first, he is reluctant: “Do you know, lads, the truth is I have no thoughts – I’m trying to have none anyhow.”
Eventually, Tom feels driven to help, in part because he was abused as an orphan. His late wife June was the daughter of a teenage mother who was sent to one of Ireland’s notorious Magdalene Laundries. June also suffered in care. Tom’s son, meanwhile, was murdered in America and, although he has a grown-up daughter who appears to be thriving, it all sounds like astonishing bad luck. There were times when I thought Barry was overdoing the horror, but perhaps the point is that trauma begets trauma.
There is more to Old God’s Time than its plot but there are surprises. To avoid spoilers, I’ll just say that Tom’s involvement in the case against the priest triggers a reckoning with his own past and that some scenes are so harrowing that it is tempting to look away. Barry writes with unsparing precision and it will be a while before I forget his description of young victims with “the little wicks of their eyes put out.” Even when he plumbs the depths, he is immensely readable.
Once or twice, I wrote in the margin: “Did this happen?” Well, no, this is a work of fiction, so none of it happened. That I asked this question, however, nods to how absorbing Old God’s Time is. Even when I was perplexed, I was not lost because I knew that I was reading a master storyteller who was exploring the fluid border between the real and the unreal, and its relation to trauma.
For all its concern with universal themes of memory, loss and violence, Old God’s Time is a state of Ireland novel about the legacy of abuse that was covered up for decades, a topic which has also featured in novels by Barry’s compatriots Anne Enright, Claire Keegan and others. The words “Ireland” and “Irish” are ubiquitous. “A date in Ireland was always a bothering thing,” thinks Tom, who fought for the British Army in Malaya before joining the police, alluding to his country’s turbulent 20th century.
Barry’s prose is occasionally too lyrical, and consequently can sound twee, while Tom is always making trite remarks about the weather: “When Irish weather stepped up to the plate you couldn’t wish to be anywhere else in the world.” That said, a smattering of banality is a relief in a novel that is frequently painful and profound. “The real stories of the world were bedded in silence,” says Tom.
Near the end, there is a hint at what the title is about: “Things once fresh, immediate, terrible, receding away into old God’s time…” This novel, fairly short in length but vast in its scope, will live long in the minds of its readers.
Old God’s Time is out now (Faber & Faber, £18.99)