Old God’s Time by Sebastian Barry

Alison’s Take:

Starting off the 2023 Booker Prize list with a strong contender here. Barry’s partial stream of consciousness is incredibly well-done, and the way Tom’s story unfolds is heartbreaking but brilliantly paced. A widower and nine months since he retired from the Gardaí, Tom has spent this time living in a cottage on the grounds of an old castle, taking his leave of the world and the world doing the same to him, until one day there’s a rap at his door. Possibly Mormons, he thinks, before opening it to find two detectives from his old unit. A case has been revived, and they think Tom might have some insight into it.

“Starting off the 2023 Booker Prize list with a strong contender here.”

Tom does have insight into it. But so does that insight crumble the delicate world he’s built for himself, the coping methods he’s constructed, and it forces him to look at the truths of his life: after an abusive childhood with the Brothers, he found happiness with June, the love of this life, only for everything to be taken again. And all of it can be traced back to the sexual abuses of the priests in Ireland, that both he and June suffered separately.

This is funny, sweet, and also tragic. Tom is an unreliable narrator, but with good intentions: he’s protecting himself and his memories so that he can carry on.

Old God’s Time is incredibly sad, and a sharp critique of the Church and its abuses, following the repercussions of the sexual abuse the priests committed, and how the struggles and trauma run deep. Barry’s writing is befitting of a Booker nominee, for sure.

Clementine’s Take:

Tom Kettle has been retired from the police for nine months, living a solitary life in a small Irish town. When two former coworkers show up at his door asking for his insight into a recently re-opened case, Tom is forced to confront a difficult past. His quiet life is cracked wide open as he faces what he has been trying to suppress.

I’m always very good at predicting which Booker nominees will not be for me. I can see what people admire here, and maybe I should be the audience for this one given that I’m very interested in twentieth century Irish history. But the strange mix of bleak and sentimental was grating; stripped down to its elements, it’s pretty repetitive and thin on plot AND robust emotional development; I figured out what little there is to discover early on. I’ve seen several people saying this one picked up for them at the halfway mark, but it just never really got there for me. The issues the novel takes up have been explored in contemporary Irish literature (and nonfiction!) and I don’t think this does anything particularly interesting with these themes. It ultimately feels, to me, insubstantial.

I also want to echo the discomfort already expressed by @novels_with_ngeru and @time4reading (and probably others!) about the treatment of an Indigenous character in New Mexico. It’s a shame given the long history of solidarity between Irish people and other colonized groups, including Indigenous peoples in the USA. (Only a few years ago there was a massive fundraising effort in Ireland for the Navajo nation…!) It’s a very flippant and one-dimensional portrayal that brings up a complex issue and then refuses to engage with it.

Should it be on the shortlist? I would be very disappointed to see it there!

Sebastian Barry was born in Dublin in 1955. He is the author of eight previous novels, as well as numerous plays. He is the first novelist to twice win the Costa Book of the Year award, for Days Without End and The Secret Scripture, has twice been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, for A Long Long Way and The Secret Scripture, and has twice been longlisted for the Booker Prize, for Days Without End and On Canaan’s Side. He was the Laureate for Irish Fiction from 2018–2021, and lives in County Wicklow, Ireland.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Viking (March 21 2023)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Hardcover ‏ : ‎ 272 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0593296109
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0593296103

Alison Manley has ricocheted between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia for most of her life. Now in Halifax, Nova Scotia, she is the Cataloguing and Metadata Librarian at Saint Mary's University. Her past life includes a long stint as a hospital librarian on the banks of the mighty Miramichi River. She has an honours BA in political science and English from St. Francis Xavier University, and a Master of Library and Information Studies from Dalhousie University. While she's adamant that her love of reading has nothing to do with her work, her ability to consume large amounts of information very quickly sure is helpful. She is often identified by her very red lipstick, and lives with her partner Brett and cat, Toasted Marshmallow.

Clementine Oberst is a Ph.D. candidate specializing in television studies. Born and raised in Toronto, she has lived in Montreal and Glasgow and now calls Hamilton home. When she isn't writing her dissertation, Clementine can be found knitting, trying to cultivate a green thumb, and playing with her cats. She loves nothing more than losing herself in a good book. You can connect with her on Instagram @clementinereads.