A novel of rich interiority, Old God’s Time by Sebastian Barry introduces us to the sedate life of Tom Kettle, a retired policeman dreaming away his days by the Irish Sea. His is the ‘little routine of a retired man,’ and the comfort of his beloved wicker chair, where he indulges in cigarillos and contemplation of his late wife, June, and their two children. When unwanted interruption comes in the form of two ex-colleagues and the reopening of a cold case, Tom is compelled to revisit the past, in Barry’s fine portrait of trauma, wavering memories, and radiant love.
Nine months retired, Tom has retreated into a solitary coastal life. After a long career that has often challenged his faith in human nature, Tom wants ‘a blessed, a quiet time,’ a hope that is dashed the afternoon detectives Wilson and O’Casey arrive with their resurrected case reports. A dirty business they say, maybe Tom remembers it. A priest. A murder.
Later, Tom weeps wretched tears. Having rejected their request for help, ‘their reports floated in his mind like squabs, flapping their wings…feed us, feed us, bring us worms.’ The worms of a dark chapter in Irish history.
Often harrowing but with passages of achingly beautiful prose, Barry takes us to the shifting sands of Tom’s mind, where fantasy and delusion are hard to distinguish from the truth, and dementia is potentially hovering in the wings. The shock of the police visit has stolen his contentment, opening the floodgates to recollections of his marriage and youth, and their connection to the long-dead priest.
When Tom had wed June in the 1960’s, she’d kept him perpetually weak-kneed with lust and blessed him with two children, Winnie and Joseph. Exuberant and beautiful, with eyes like ‘gold dust in a Wicklow river,’ she was his sun. Both of them had been orphanage children, June with the Sacred Heart nuns, and Tom with ‘the Brothers’. Both had witnessed scenes their young minds had not had the vocabulary to describe, and one of them was six years old when first invited to sit ‘on the knee of a priest.’
And now June is gone, never to grow old with her husband, and where are their children? Tom’s always waiting for Winnie and Joseph. Sometimes he chats to Winnie but often feels maybe there’s no need for words. A certain wry stoicism sees him through, born of an institutionalised life; orphanage, army, police. Obligation wins out and Tom decides to assist the investigation.
In turn compelling and disconcerting, Tom’s stream of consciousness story leaves the reader on precarious ground. It’s impossible to discern the truth as not everything he remembers can have taken place. Ghosts of all kinds flit in and out of scenes, and time itself plays tricks on Tom. But contained within these unfolding scenes is the salvation he so desperately longs for.
A story of trauma and its impact on loved ones and memory, Old God’s Time is a magnificent novel, surely destined for every prize shortlist.
Old God’s Time by Sebastian Barry is published by Faber & Faber, 300 pages.