Award winning Irish author Sebastian Barry deals with the stain on his country’s soul in his latest book Old God’s Time. But he does it in a roundabout way, taking his time to get there and delivering plenty of regret and tragedy along the way.
It is the mid-1990s and Tom Kettle is a retired policeman and former soldier living on his own in one of the outbuildings of a fake castle on the Irish coast. His solitude is broken by two young policemen sent by his former boss and colleague to ask him about a cold case. The details of that case and Tom’s involvement in it unravel slowly over the course of the narrative. But the encounter and its aftermath opens up a well of memory of Tom who starts to review his life and the many tragedies that have led him to this place and time. In doing so, though he will forge some new connections and find himself re-engaging with life, even as his grip on reality starts to slip a little.
Old God’s Time is a compassionate story of a man trying to come to terms with his past. Barry takes readers deep into Tom’s psyche so that the boundaries between reality and his imaginings sometimes blur. But the past is fixed, and as it is slowly revealed, the impact of the abuse of children by the clergy and by family members becomes a pernicious and pervasive theme, one that led to intergenerational trauma. Barry does not hold back in these descriptions, unveiling the horrors that were covered up for so many years.
Old God’s Time is a character study but Barry effectively uses the tropes of the crime novel (a cold case investigation, evidence and witnesses) to give it an inexorable structure. Revelations lead to reminiscence lead to more revelations lead to action. It is both carefully observed and compelling, Barry is careful to pay off all of the secrets that lie on the surface in the opening few pages. But, more importantly, Old God’s Time provides an opportunity to reflect on a massive injustice that was known about but ignored and sometimes facilitated by authorities and had ongoing consequences for the people affected and their families not only in Ireland but in many other parts of the world.