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Booker Prize 2023: Old God's Time by Sebastian Barry

For nine months now, Tom Kettle has got to enjoy the quiet solitude of retirement after ending his career with the garda. From his rented annex in Dalkey, he gets a view of the Irish sea in all its colours. Until, one day, two figures appear amidst the rhododendron outside the frosted glass of his front door. Mormons? No, Wilson and O’Casey, two young policemen, former colleagues of his, reopening a case never fully resolved in Tom’s day. Old memories resurface, not just of the widower’s own past, but of sinister truths hiding in dark corners of religious institutions. Caught between wanting to see those who deserve it brought to justice and trying to keep the memory of his loved ones save, Tom starts to lose his grip on reality, on what is present and who is long gone.

As Tom is forced to face the darkest moments of his past, Old God’s Time hauntingly portraits the powers the Catholic Church held over Ireland, and the horror inflicted in countless boys and girls.

Sebastian Barry’s novel is by no measure an enjoyable read. But it is truly rewarding.

His writing is masterful, though his prose is like quicksand. You get sucked into it, stuck in it, fight your way through, in a way that echoes Tom’s experience of battling with his failing memory. Just as fear and early dementia consume our narrator, Barry’s writing consumes the reader. And that’s a compliment. Is there anything better than getting so subsumed in an author’s language, you struggle to emerge back into the real world? In Tom’s stream of consciousness – and increasingly perhaps, his stream of unconsciousness – we witness the most horrible crimes and earth-shattering loss. Trauma and grief are inevitably linked, as two young people try and fail to escape their past. Here I have met one of the most convincing unreliable narrators I have read so far, perhaps because all he does and remembers, all he strives to keep, is deepest, purest love.

No, Old God’s Time, is not an easy read. It is unsettling and confusing, violent and heart-breaking. But that love, written by an author of such unquestionable talent, must make for one of the most heart-wrenching reading experiences of the year.

Published by Faber & Faber, 2023

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