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Old God's Time

 Book Review

Title: Old God's Time

Author: Sebastian Barry

Publisher: Faber & Faber, London, 2023

Pages: 261

Much of our personality is shaped in our childhood. Traumatic experiences can distort one's personality irreparably. Thomas Kettle (Tom), the protagonist of Sebastian Barry's latest novel, is one such person whose very soul was wrung out by the Christian Brothers (a Catholic congregation of ascetics) in whose orphanage he grew up. These Brothers abused him sexually.

Old God's Time is not a psychological thriller, however. It is a metaphysical novel that explores the impact of our early memories on our later life and the ineluctable subjectivity of reality. Tom is 66 when the novel begins. He is a retired police detective who was earlier in the British army. He has now chosen to live in a relatively secluded place overlooking the Irish Sea. Memories don't leave him alone, however, and his memories aren't any kind to him.

Tom has had a catastrophic life like the biblical Job. The epigraph of the novel comes from the book of Job. The Old God of the title could as well be Job's God whose love is as heartless as it is binding. But the Oxford Reference instructs us that the phrase 'old God's time' refers to 'a period beyond memory.'

Tom's memory is pretty unreliable. But we know for certain that he was abused sexually as a boy by the Brothers. It is also certain that his wife June was raped repeatedly by a Catholic priest from the time she was just six years old. For six long years, he raped the child. "His kisses," June tells Tom, "his fu©king kisses. His yoke inside me like a burning poker, do you know how much that hurts when you are a little girl?"

June is making a sort of confession to the man whom she loves dearly, her husband. But is it she who sinned? Memories cloud not only your perspectives but also your judgement. Tom knows that and more. Wasn't he a victim of and witness to something similar? He remembers the many souls that were "put out like a candlewick in the sea of lust... He had seen it with his own eyes, the boys the Brothers were raping, with the light in their eyes put out."

Tom's love is not enough for June to endure the agony of her haunting memories. Some scars are incurable and they eventually carry you to your grave all too soon. The people you get around you in your childhood do matter.

June crumbles too soon. Worse tragedies descend on Tom's personal as well as professional life. Tom is another biblical Job enduring much. There are too many scars in his soul. Tom is overwhelmed by the haunting memories. Do these memories cloud his perception? Tom wonders more than once whether he is going mad.

Ms McNulty is a character we meet in Tom's neighbourhood. She ran away from her husband who drove their own daughter to her cruel end. McNulty is yet another of those people who endure horrors but can't talk about them. So many sad stories lie untold in human hearts. But is McNulty real? Is she a creation of Tom's roiled mind?

Tom's mind has been thrown into such turbulence by the appearance of two of his young former colleagues from the Garda, who want his help in investigating a new case involving two Catholic priests. After all, Tom has a long association with the religious.

But Tom doesn't want to remember them, the priests. Yet the novel is much more than about clerical pedophilia. It is a complex work that compels you to return to the pages you have already read. It carries a bewitching "lovely wildness" in it.

PS. All quotes are from the novel.


  1. Hari OM
    I have this on my TBR wishlist - ta for the review! YAM xx

  2. This is a book I cannot read. I can't deal with the topic. I don't deal well hearing about other people's pain, especially pain like this. But there are plenty of people who appreciate this sort of novel.

    1. It isn't a theme that anyone will like. But the evil needs to be looked at and Barry does it as sensitively as only a good writer can.


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