In ‘Old God’s Time,’ Sebastian Barry stresses effects of violence and abuse : NPR

Cover of Ancient Gods
Cover of the Times of Old God

Tom Kettle has seen enough evil in his life. The 66-year-old Irishman has retired from his career as a police detective and moved into a cottage adjacent to a castle in the town of Dalkey. He feels relieved at the end of his days at Garda Síochána, Ireland’s national police agency: “All his working life he has dealt with villains. After a few decades, his faith your belief in human nature is already in the ground. It’s a premature burial, before your own.”

Garda, unfortunately, is not done with him. In his new novel, Old God’s time, Sebastian Barry follows Tom as his life becomes even more disturbed as he is faced with a past he would rather forget. It’s a beautiful, relentlessly bleak novel about the effects of violence and abuse that can reverberate for years and generations.

Tom is almost enjoying his retirement – being “still, happy and useless” – when two Garda detectives visit him, saying they think he can help them solve a case. . Tom immediately shines with them, and his first instinct is to ask for help, but he turns pale when detectives tell him the case involves a priest who has been murdered for years. before. “God, go home, boys,” he thought. “You’re taking me back to a place I don’t know. The ugliness of everything. The filthy, violent darkness. The hands of the priests. The silence… Its utter humiliation is felt again. after all, still present and exact the years.”

Tom is still haunted by the case. The priest in question is suspected of child molestation, and Tom considers his death no great loss – he was abused as a child by a Catholic brother, and his late wife his grandfather, June, was raped several times by a priest when she was a little girl. . Both suffered from post-traumatic stress from abuse. Tom recalls his wife’s emotional distance: “He had no way of contacting her, even when she was at home. She was a phone that wasn’t plugged in.” He also remembers witnessing boys being sexually assaulted – “with the light in their eyes extinguished” – at the hands of priests.

From the very beginning of the book it is revealed that Tom is obsessed with more than his childhood. The two children he and June raised are both dead, though he sometimes imagines them both still alive, with his daughter Winnie visiting him at his Dalkey home. Despite the anxiety and depression that overwhelms him after detectives arrive at his home – and his growing memory – he agrees to help with the case when his former colleague, now director Garda, ask him to do so. Tom soon discovers that his participation is not exactly what he thought it was.

Barry has always had a gift for creating memorable characters, and Tom is one of his most compelling characters, largely because he’s unreliable. The novel is told from a limited third-person perspective, and from the very beginning of the novel it becomes clear to the reader that Tom, tormented by almost incurable trauma, is completely unaware of the story. what is going on with your life; it calls everything in the book – even the existence of some characters – questionable. Tom admits the same: “Obviously he’s going crazy. But he read somewhere that really crazy people never know they’re crazy. He knows he’s crazy. Is that right? proof of sanity?”

Barry’s prose is, as usual, superb. Sometimes, the text borders on the stream of consciousness, as Tom struggles to keep up and to avoid his own thoughts. At one point, after the detectives’ first visit, Tom wondered if he was strong enough to withstand what his life would turn out to be: “Oh, this world It’s too hard for him That is. No. Bad lie. Self-deception, like a madman, like a dark criminal with crimes too bad to admit, even to him. self.”

It has the ability to go without having to say that Old God’s time can be extremely, almost physically painful to read; The novel contains explicit depictions of child sexual abuse. But Barry still approaches the subject sensitively – reading these scenes hurts the viewer, but in context they feel necessary, not allowing the reader to escape the kind of brutality that has gone unpunished for so many years. decades in Ireland and elsewhere.

Old God’s time is another powerful, painful novel, yet another excellent product of Barry, who is clearly one of the finest Irish writers today. This is also a book filled with deep moral anger that refuses to let go of the crimes that have ruined so many lives. “People have to endure horrors, and then they can’t talk about them,” says Tom. “True stories of the world are buried in silence. Mortar is silence and walls are sometimes impenetrable.”


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