Faber and Faber Ltd| 2 March 2023 | 228 pages|e-book |Review copy|4*
Have you ever been the custodian of a story no one else believed?’
‘Oh yes,’ he said.
‘Yes,’ he said.
‘Then I can tell you.’
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.
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.
I’ve enjoyed all Sebastian Barry’s books and Old God’s Time is no exception. It’s set in Dalkey, a small coastal town south of Dublin, where Tom, a recently retired policeman is living in a tiny flat annexed to a Victorian castle. One afternoon he was sitting in a sun-faded wicker chair, enjoying a cigarillo, listening to the sound of the sea below. He was quite content to just gaze out, watching the cormorants on the rocks to the left of Dalkey Island, when two of his former colleagues disturbed his peaceful afternoon, asking for his help on a cold case he had worked on. He doesn’t want to, knowing it will open up painful memories he would rather forget.
So this appears to be a detective story, but the main focus is Tom, himself as the narrative reveals in streams of consciousness. It soon becomes clear that his memories are unreliable and for a while I was confused, not knowing what was going on, whether Tom was remembering, or imagining what had happened in his life. It is beautifully written, showing the beauties of the landscape. It takes us right inside Tom’s mind, highlighting the horrors that Tom had experienced both in his childhood and family life as well as in his professional life. The past had not been kind to him. But now it was as though enough time had gone by and it was as if it had never happened; it had receded away into ‘old God’s time’, and Tom didn’t want to reach back into those memories. They were locked away, preserved in the long-ago.
It is a tragic story, not shying away from describing the horrific details of child abuse, nor the despair and sadness as the details of Tom’s family life are gradually revealed. It is a harrowing book, made even more so as I had to read it slowly making sure I fully understood what I was reading, even going back to re-read some passages. It is bleak, but Tom’s story is also one of love and immeasurable happiness, of strength and goodness, alongside grief and pain.