Plot: Recently retired policeman Tom Kettle is settling into the quiet of his new home, a lean-to annexed to a Victorian castle overlooking the Irish Sea. For months he has barely seen a soul, catching only glimpses of his eccentric landlord and a nervous young mother who has moved in next door. Occasionally, fond memories return, of his family, his beloved wife June and their two children, Winnie and Joe.
But when two former colleagues turn up at his door with questions about a decades-old case, one which Tom never quite came to terms with, he finds himself pulled into the darkest currents of his past.
A beautiful, haunting novel, in which nothing is quite as it seems, Old God’s Time is about what we live through, what we live with, and what may survive of us.
Publisher: Faber and Faber | Date: 2023 | Genre: General Fiction
I received Old God’s Time from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.
Old God’s Time Review
Some reviews are easy to write. Some are hard.
This is the latter.
Old God’s Time by Sebastian Barry combines dark, heavy and upsetting topics with beautiful writing. It’s a tale of traumatic childhoods full of abuse while at the same time exploring finding love, finding your soulmate, and being able to build something from the ashes of your past.
Our main character and narrator is Tom Kettle, a retired policeman hoping for nothing other than being able to find peace. Set against a subplot of two detectives opening an old murder case, Tom’s life and past – and that of his family – is gradually unravelled.
But it’s more complicated than that. Tom is an unreliable narrator, almost to the extreme. There are times when events and meetings unfold, then you’re pulled back to reality as Tom realises that he’s dreaming. He meets people, has conversations and insights, only for the reader to later discover those events couldn’t have happened.
The narration style is more like a stream of conscience than any other style I’ve read. This is a book you have to concentrate with. Not only is it impossible to tell what is real or not, Tom’s thoughts go off on random directions before coming back to the initial point. These rambles of a man who has seen a lot and been through even more are beautifully written and poignant in their own way, but do bring you out of the story.
Old God’s Time is full of deep topics that touch you in an emotional way. There’s no justice, no sense of a happy ending and everyone getting what they deserve. It’s an intense read throughout, but the last 10% or so messed with my emotions. I finished the book feeling despondent, wrecked by what this man had gone through, despite it being a piece of fiction.
Barry’s writing is what makes this an intense read. He gives Tom a voice that you can’t help but stay with, despite the content. You feel the unfairness of his world and you want him to be able to find the peace he’s so desperately seeking. There’s beauty in Barry’s descriptions, in the way he portrays this world, and you’re transported to Ireland, to this village where Tom Kettle lives.
This is no easy read. The content has so many warnings and could easily be triggering for a lot of people. There were particular passages I found difficult to read – even more so than the book as a whole. It’s harrowing in its own way and doesn’t leave you feeling uplifted at all.
That being said, Barry’s writing is incredible and you easily see why he’s won awards for his work. I’d recommend the book for the writing, but not for the content. I’ve been keen to read more of his work since The Secret Scripture so in some way, I’m glad to have read it. It’s a book that will stay with me, but not an easy read.
Conflicted feelings here.
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- Dog Days by Ericka Waller
- Four Minutes to Save a Life by Anna Stuart
2 thoughts on “Old God’s Time Review | Sebastian Barry”
Great review Lindsey! I haven’t heard of this author before, but your review made me curious about this book. I’ve come across this style of narration previously and like you said, I found it to be difficult to read, but it left a lasting impression at the end. Thanks for sharing!
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Thank you so much! This author always seem to have interesting reading styles but I find his books quite moving.