Well, the Irish. As writers, they don’t disappoint. Last week I was at one of those moments in life when I simply needed the comfort of spending time with a good person who had a few troubles, a flawed human being trying to make it from one day to the next. So I reached for Sebastian Barry’s book Old God’s Time despite its description as a story about a retired policeman brought back to help with an unsolved murder. The book is not a police procedural and it’s not about an unsolved crime (although there is an unsolved murder in the story). It’s about loss—of innocence, of love, of your memory, of your family, and of the will to just keep going.
Tom Kettle has been retired from police work for nine months. He enjoys sitting in his big rocker, having a dram of whiskey, and taking it easy. He’s a really nice guy who has lost and is losing almost everything he holds dear. One day, as he sits in his chair, two new coppers show up at his doorstep seeking help for an unsolved murder they are reopening because they have new evidence. He’s reluctant to re-enter his old world, not wanting to disturb his newfound calmer life. Then he realizes he has no choice. It’s a sad story not because Barry pours it on, wringing everything out of you, but because you simply accompany Tom as he tries, as he avoids, as he wrestles, and as he ultimately loses or wins depending on how you see things. I read Old God’s Time in a day and a half, curled on the couch, a tray of crackers and cheese and sliced apples on the table next to me. A perfect weekend with a perfect book.
First of all, to dispatch with the early and the obvious, Barry is a magnificent writer. In describing when he first met his wife and was falling in love with her he says:
It was just the warmth of her, sitting on the bus, her leg against his, the tight stretch of jeans across her thigh…It would make a tightrope walker fall.
I laughed when I read this and it felt so true—about the jittery early moments of falling in love.
And this, about aging:
The burden of growing older was borne alone, but also as if by someone else because he often couldn’t recognize bits of himself he caught in the mirror. Whose newly scrawny legs were those? Why was his head sitting further forward on his neck?
Tom knew an expensive shirt when he saw it, because he would never purchase such a thing.
Again, I laughed.
Tom is discouraged and returns to his flat, and instead of Barry describing Tom’s state of mind, he describes how Tom thinks about his dinner:
Tom went back into the flat. Chicken that had died of old age, potatoes with the skin of a phonebook.
More laughing. Who thinks of the texture of the cover of a phonebook for any reason at all? But of course it’s the exact texture of a potato if it was dinner time and you’d had a bad day.
Then this two-sentence observation that cuts to the heart of the matter:
No one minds life as long as they’re not trying to leave it. Nor death, as long as they’re not dying.
But Barry’s skill extends far beyond his mastery of the language and of imagery. It’s his understanding of what it is to be a flawed human being, a good person with some shame in the distant past that clings like a square of toilet paper to the sole of your shoe. He refers obliquely to a secret Tom harbors, dropping tiny hints every so often that indicate something important is buried, very subtle bread crumbs that you notice, that raise your curiosity but not necessarily your anxiety:
That was a quare form of policing, but he had never done anything but buckle under. Never done anything, but just the once.
But just the once. Those four words are exactly enough. Barry trusts the reader to stay with the depth of the story, refraining from any need to goose you into hustling right through to the end, flipping through the pages to find out what happened or who did it or what clues you missed. No one should hustle through a book written by an Irish author in the first place. Not even a book with a policeman and an unsolved murder in it. Because of course that’s not what the book is about.
The book is about things falling apart despite our efforts—hopes, dreams, life. Tom’s wife has died, his daughter has died, and his son has died. In describing his belief that the world could not be so cruel to take his son after he has already lost his wife and daughter, Barry writes:
Somehow he thought, after the tally of the first two deaths, that Joe being left to him was a sort of weird recompense. As if you could be paid with the money you already owned, your own gold put in your pocket as a wage.
I had to read that passage ten times. Not because I didn’t understand it the first time, but because it was such a gorgeous, unlikely image, and the words so poetic and rhythmic, and I was simply green with envy at Barry’s mastery of language and image and feeling.
As Tom faces his losses—the ones known to others and the one known only to himself—he wrestles with how this disturbs what has been only nine months of his retirement:
It was up to him now to know less about times and details and more about the moiling mysteries of the human heart. Things happened to people, and some people were required to lift great weights that crushed you if you faltered for just a moment. It was his job not to falter. But everyday he faltered. Every day he was crushed, and rose again the following morn like a cartoon figure. Road Runner, Bugs Bunny—crushed, yet recomposed. Never the smell of death in a cartoon.
But we smell the whiff of death as this story comes closer and closer to the end. Not as a whodunit, but as a story of justice and morality and the price of living and of loving. I cried at the end of this book because it is simply so lovely and so sad and so human and strikes at the heart of why I read: to break the frozen sea inside me, as Kafka said.
Old God’s Time was the balm I was looking for in that low moment when I hoped I would get comfort from a good story. This book goes directly onto my Sacred Texts shelf, in the good company of many other Irish writers.
You can buy or order Old God’s Time at your local bookstore. If you don’t have a local bookstore, you can order it online at:
or at Barnes and Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/old-gods-time-sebastian-barry/1141679650?ean=9780593296103
About Susan Edsall
Writing is how I make my way through the thicket of what we’ve made of this planet we’re on. It takes me a long time and lots of words. Social media mystifies me. How do so many people have so much to say, so quickly, and with such resolute certainty? Read more about Susan >