Old God’s Time by Sebastian Barry

When teaching comprehension, we used to do an activity that asked children to summarise what they had just read. It helped us to see how they understood the book and what had been important to them. It is what I still do when I am unsure about a book and what it means.

My first was a summary of the plot. ‘An aging man sits in his chair and reminisces about his life.’ But of course the book is so much more than that. So it could be, ‘The impact of paedophile priests on the lives of those they abused.’ Or, ‘Memories as unreliable narrators.’ Perhaps, ‘How love and grief drive a man to forgetfulness.’ All of these and more are true but just coming up with them, helped me to identify what I thought about the book and it is one of those books that grew on me.

Tom Kite, a retired policeman, lives alone in a flat attached to a castle near the sea in Ireland. The setting is a bit gothic: wild weather; crenellations, unknown neighbours and shadows. One afternoon, two young policeman knock on his door wanting to talk about the death of a priest many years ago because accusations have been made about Kite. This then takes him off into a rambling stream of consciousness where I constantly wondered what I had just read, whether it made sense and was it all a dream.

His whole memory of this event he knew in his rational policeman’s heart could not be true. Yet he saw it all in his mind’s eye. Thus he remembered it, and in this way it was true. Not true enough, because that wouldn’t serve anyone, but true. So true but not true. How could that be? It was the reason that, in lifting the weight from herself, she had put something else in its place. Much lighter, much much deadlier. The seed of her eventual dissolution? The little spot of contagion, of poison. They had climbed the mountain path together. Absolutely together, like a bloody sandwich. Him the bread, she the slice of ham, like a rat that had collapsed its bones to enter by a tiny crease-thin crack, and she lay on his back, on his backbone as if she was almost not there, and perhaps she wasn’t.


So many images, all of them quite disturbing and writing that has to be read slowly because there is so much packed in to it. Understanding won’t be helped by rushing.

What I came to realise was that this was a very unreliable narrator – the way that memories can be. At first I thought Kite had dementia, then I thought he was dying but now I think the grief and loss and trauma that he had in his life ensured that he never let go of any of his losses or grief. His obsession over his wife was a little menacing; her perfectness in his eyes and their shared trauma of abuse in childhood pulling them together and defining how they would parent. But the memories of this perfection must also be a narrative made up out of thoughts and dreams, wishes and hopes.

Eventually, I also realised that his daughter was no longer alive and that in fact not only had his wife died but so had both his children and what we heard about them in their later lives was the life they hadn’t lived. His daughter visited him regularly, dressed well and working as a lawyer for a top law firm whereas nothing could really have been further from the truth.

There were points in the book where I got quite lost and infuriated – couldn’t anything be told to us straight – but of course, this was the outcome I think Barry wanted. This is what it means to be lost in memories that are driven by trauma and in fact you can’t just snap out of it.

A bit mixed for me – like a too-rich chocolate cake. I want to like it but I just can’t and can only eat a small amount. I do, however, think it is an interesting contribution to that growing body of literature that explores what happened in Ireland up until the 80s and the after effects with unmarried mothers, orphanages, laundries, abuse and the f***ing paedophile Catholic priests and collaborating nuns.

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