Old God’s Time by Sebastian Barry: ‘This is the saddest story I have ever heard’

Cover image for Old God's Time by Sebastian Barry That subtitle isn’t a quote from Sebastian Barry’s new novel – as some of you may have spotted, it’s the opening line from Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier – but it’s the phrase that came into my head many times while reading it. Set in mid-1990s Ireland, Old God’s Time follows a recently retired police officer whose ex-boss has been told to reopen a cold case which involved two priests, both child sex abusers, one of whom had been brutally murdered while the other was moved on to another parish.

Just for an hour, as the morning sunlight entered his room and bathed his face, he minded nothing and no one. He cradled the memory of his wife as if she were still a living being.

Tom is living in the annex of a Victorian villa in Dalkey overlooking the sea. He’s taken aback when two young detectives knock at the door one stormy night, asking questions about the unsolved murder on which Tom and his partner Billy worked. Billy’s now dead but Tom may be able to shed some light on what happened. The two men are awkward. Tom is a decorated officer, a detective like themselves. It’s thirty years since Father Matthews met his brutal end but they’re eager to ensure that his curate is finally brought to justice. Tom wants to help but he has periods of confusion. He’s suffered terrible losses in a life which didn’t start well, having suffered brutality and depravity in the orphanage where he was raised. His ex-colleagues are considerate and kind but they know more than they let on. When the young woman who has moved into an apartment in the main house with her son asks for his protection, having fled her abusive husband, Tom willingly agrees.

But the priests have brought this on themselves. They’ve cooked the devil’s stew for themselves. And now they must sup.

Barry’s writing is gorgeously poetic, lyrical and striking in its imagery. Tom’s narrative reflects a confusion which maybe memory loss or the aftereffects of trauma, slowly unfolding a story the details of which he has been hiding from himself for thirty years. The loss of his beloved wife a decade ago, a fellow orphan unable to live with what was done to her as a child despite the happiness of their marriage and their two children, has left him bereft. Memories of her and their life together, full of an anguished yearning, are woven through a narrative which at times brings you up short as the depths of Tom’s trauma and what it has done to him become clear. His is a desperately sad story, one which makes tough reading even for readers fortunate enough to have enjoyed a happy childhood. There’s a beauty in Barry’s telling of it which makes the ugliness all the more stark.

Faber & Faber: London 9780571332779 300 pages Hardback (Read via NetGalley)

33 thoughts on “Old God’s Time by Sebastian Barry: ‘This is the saddest story I have ever heard’”

  1. Intriguing review, must pick this up. I’ve enjoyed the lyricism of Barry’s writing since ‘the whereabouts of Eneas McNulty’ many years ago.

      1. I haven’t read this book yet. However, I’d like to warn you about the saddest, most depressing book I’ve read. Please don’t read it. I had to force myself to finish Independent People by Haldor Laxness. I was in a funk for weeks. I think caution signs should go up every time the tiltle is mentioned.

  2. What a timely review. The library has just contacted me to say my reserved copy awaits collection. Though it sounds as if a degree of fortitude is required to read this.

  3. I haven’t read anything by Barry yet but this sounds compelling, the beauty of his writing with the ugliness of the subject what a fascinating contrast.

  4. It doesn’t go into …um… physical detail, does it? I recently had to abandon one which was so explicit I could not go on and still have vivid images in my head.

    1. Oh dear, that sounds grim. Barry’s more subtle than that, leaving his readers to infer rather than spelling it out for them. His emphasis is on the devastating aftermath of abuse. Harrowing in a different way, of course.

  5. Just finished this book at 6am. I couldn’t put it down after picking it up at 4am as I couldn’t get back to sleep. Love the way Barry delivers heart-felt emotion through his beautifully sculpted characters, packing a punch right to your chest.

      1. Yes indeed. I haven’t read many of his books to date (Temporary Gentleman, Days without end and his first novel, Macker’s Garden) but this will change as from now!

  6. Beautifully written insight into PTSD and cultural/religious biases and justice. We never really know what others are living with. Thank you

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