Old God's Time: Longlisted for the Booker Prize 2023 bookcover

Old God's Time: Longlisted for the Booker Prize 2023

Sebastian Barry

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Recently retired police officer 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.

  • Latest reviews

    A painfully sad story, beautifully told, about ageing, grief, love, loss, family, abuse and the devastating effects it has that continue on through the generations. Heartbreaking stuff.

    I was very excited to be given an advance copy of this book. I have previously read Days Without End which I thoroughly enjoyed. Barry is unquestionably a natural storyteller. It can be said that this is a stream of consciousness narrative but that complements the main character, Tom's state of mind perfectly and should not be written in any other way. By adopting this method it is easier to get inside Tom's brain and through processes. Clearly, Tom has repressed trauma that he has not dealt with adequately. It rears its ugly head throughout this heartbreaking story. It is harrowing at times but a necessary read.

    Wow, what a poetic, sad, enthralling story. My heart is broken for Tom. I would recommend this book if life is getting you down as it is a lesson in accepting that it's not so bad after all. Lily, The Reading Bees of New Malden I have loved every Sebatian Barry book I have read and was delighted to receive an advance copy of this book from Faber. The haunting characterisation that I associate with the writer is evident throughout. The story itself is terribly sad. I want to give Tom a hug and make his world better. Clearly, Barry has huge empathy for his fellow humans. He is a master of human sensitivity. At times the book was slow as the story unfold but I am glad that Barry addresses systemic historical clerical child abuse which has blighted Irelands history and does not try to brush it under the carpet but deals with it head on. The story is moving. The book itself needs to be read slowly to ensure that you are on top of Tom and his meandering memories of the past. Karen, The Reading Bees of New Malden

    Using beautiful and descriptive language, Old God’s Time tells the story of recalled memories of a retired policeman, Tom Kettle. Tom has moved to a new home by the sea but has little interaction with anyone. His life has slowed down and he spends his time reminiscing about his wife and children. As a policeman, he was involved in investigating a disturbing case which he has never forgotten. He is then unexpectedly invited back to the force as the old case is under review. The narrative and flow of the novel is nonlinear, but possibly that is reflective of the main character’s mindset. I loved the story of Tom and June, their courtship, marriage, and family. It was clear that Tom loved her deeply as we learned of snippets of their life throughout the book. Other characters such as Mr Tomelty (landlord) could be a story of their own. I would have welcomed a sensitive content/trigger warning as some of the content was upsetting. However, I have enjoyed the book and would recommend it. Alissa, New Malden Library Reading Bees Good size font although large blocks of text would be easier to read were there some lines/spaces to break it up. Good cover art - softly indicative of the content, engaging title too. The story starts well with a good amount of personality to balance out the scene building prose , and gets quickly started after this. By page 50 I thought it was a touch flowery, so much detail not always pertaining to the story but I like how the revelations of his family come to pass. I think this is a beautiful look inside the head of a man stuck inside a time gone by. This is not my usual genre but I am grateful to the publishers for an advance copy. Emma, The Reading Bees of New Malden

    This beautifully written novel introduces us to retired policeman Tom Kettle who is living a recluse-like life in rural Ireland. Early on, this is shattered by his doorbell ringing. He finds two serving policemen sent to ask his assistance with an unsolved crime from some time ago. What follows is a description of Tom wrestling with his memories of what could have been, bearing a burden of injustice and trying to resist being drawn back to his former ‘Old God’s Time world’, whilst finding some solace in his reflections and developing a renewed feeling of self worth. The novel drew me in from the start with the intrigue and the dry humour. What follows is exquisite description, Tom’s anger towards injustice and the tenderness of relationships. Tom misses June his wife June enormously, whilst the serving policemen develop a sensitivity towards him, not wanting his retirement to be blemished. It is carefully paced, gripping me initially with its underlying air of mystery, then a more gentle (if perhaps slightly over long) mid-section of Tom’s reflections, hallucinations and dreams, before a final crescendo of shattering revelations. Being set in Ireland, it’s perhaps not surprising that religious scandals, bombings, beautiful nature and politics feature. Barry’s descriptions made me feel I was there; getting under the skin of the central characters was made easy; and the strength of the human spirit shone through. Covering so much in a short novel is a testament to Barry’s skill and place as a truly great novelist. Debbie, The Reading Bees of New Malden

    I had high expectations for this book, having previously read and enjoyed The Scripture Scripture by the same author. However, I struggled to complete this new book. Maybe it was the wrong book at the wrong time for me but I found to difficult to engage with the main character, found the storylines confusing to follow and some of the content hard to stomach. I can appreciate the quality of the writing in the opening chapters and the clever weaving of an almost dreamlike narrative to express the inner world of the main character. I also respect the skill at managing the different time lines and plot revelations but sadly I cannot say that I enjoyed this book. I am grateful nevertheless that our book club was given the chance to receive copies and it may well be that I will find more to appreciate in it when we have our group discussion about it very soon. V Ryrie, Hunstanworth Village Hall Book Club

    As a member of ‘wine women and words’ book club I offer my own thoughts on this book - the group’s review is below . The themes of this book - child sexual abuse ,corruption within the Catholic Church and State collusion, family dynamics and the impact of childhood and adult trauma are woven together through the story past and present of Thomas kettle- retired police detective. A request from tom’s old boss to assist in a old case sees him become a potential suspect and we are drawn in to his world as he remembers events from his and his family’s past .He is prone to rambling , ambiguous recollection and seeing ghosts which leaves you as the reader mirroring his confusion as you are drawn inside the workings of his mind . What is truth or lie ,real or unreal , good or bad . I loved this book - my advice is take your time to engage with Tom when all feels unclear at the beginning.Soon I felt like I was walking by his side as the book unveiled the full tragedy of the kettle family and the final chapters left me speechless and sobbing as Tom reconciles his past and present actions.

    Faber and Faber were kind enough to give our reading group (Wine, Women and Words) pre-release copies of this book to read and review. We first meet Tom Kettle, a retired detective, living in a rented flat looking out over the sea in Dalkey. The story starts with a visit from two young detectives wanting to know if he can help them with an unsolved, historic case. As the story progresses we learn of Tom's deep love for his wife and children through his rambling and at times very confused mind. We learn of his family history in snippets as he takes us into the world of orphanages run by nuns and priests and the inevitable stories of child abuse. The beautiful, lyrical writing packs a real punch and we begin to understand how the terrible consequences of hidden trauma can impact on an entire family in the most devastating way. At times the content was quite hard to read but the cleverness of the writing drew me in so I needed to find out what happened next. Overall a great book but not for the faint hearted.

    Although we enjoyed the book we tended to compare it with "The Secret Scripture" which was very well received when we read it years ago. Some members have Irish roots so could empathise better with the characters.

    Wine, women and words were fortunate enough to review 'Old God's Time' by Sebastian Barry and although we all agreed that the novel is beautifully written it was definitely not a joy to read. Certainly Barry's beautifully written prose brings the reader into the story and makes them feel like they're there. Although the vivid and truly disturbing impact of Ireland's great shame on its people and the true consequences of that on individuals and whole families makes it very painful to read. The book is a slice of Irish history that holds the Catholic Church and establishment to count for their role in the awful atrocities that took place and should be praised for that. We found ourselves asking 'how many more stories like this are there?' One of the things that sets this book apart is the vivid descriptions that make the sickening events of the past come to life. The author doesn't shy away from the details of rape but doesn't make them salacious either. We felt that it was a delicate balance, but one that Barry pulls off with ease. We felt that the beauty of the book lies in the language and the vivid descriptions of Ireland. There are no clichés, and every word seems to have been chosen with care. Reading it, you can almost feel the salt spray of the sea and the dampness of the Irish weather. We all agreed that the characters are authentic although we had different views on the way the prose is written. Some felt that the old man's wandering mind is a particularly well-crafted device that helps to draw the reader in whilst others felt irritated by his stream of consciousness ramblings and found our own minds wandering away from the text in the same way. We agreed that although the first half of the book may be slow, it all comes together in the second half. One strong point of discussion was along the lines of memory and the title 'Old God's time' indicating a period beyond memory. We found ourselves asking: can we even rely on the narrator's telling of the story? As a group we couldn't even agree on the ending or even who killed who. The unreliable narrator's monologue in his head turns into a re-writing of the past but don't we all rewrite our own past? It was an interesting point of discussion. The book raises questions about whether we should leave the past in the past and how false memories can be a protective mechanism. The author doesn't give easy answers, but he does leave the reader with plenty to think about. Overall, 'Old God's Time' is a book to be savoured. It's a powerful and thought-provoking read that will stay with you long after you've finished it.

    An emotional rollercoaster of a novel where one becomes immersed in the character and his heart-breaking life story and the almost unbearable suffering he has experienced. Barry’s poetic and sensitive writing keeps us engaged throughout and this haunting novel stayed with me weeks after. This is the fourth of his novels I have read and this one a masterpiece. I was fortunate enough to hear the author read from it at a recent literary festival. The novel is set in the seaside town of Dalkey near Dublin in the 1990s but much of the story takes place in the 1960s . Time and place are both captured vividly with references to oxters, brown paper, perms, films of the period. etc. It is very much a love song to Dublin and the nearby coastline and coastal area which Barry is clearly familiar with and holds close to his heart. Some of his own experiences are incorporated powerfully - in particular the horror of witnessing the Dublin 1974 bombings as a student there. Initially you assume this is going to be something of a detective novel with the re-kindling of an old cold case resurrected when two ex police colleagues come to visit Tom Kettle in his seaside retirement cottage. As you piece the story together you realise Tom may be, for one reason or another - ( dementia, confusion, dreams, ghosts, and memories) an unreliable narrator. A sense of foreboding builds which leads us to believe that the quiet, happy and undisturbed retirement this ex Dublin police officer is hoping for is not going to materialise. “………..he had never done anything but buckle under. Never done anything but just the once …….” We, like Tom perhaps, anticipate a summer of joy, peace and contentment in idyllic seaside surroundings but early on we see Tom in tears as he takes regular walks along the coast line and in local parks in Dalkey. At one point he appears to be suicidal . We have premonitions of some secret or tragedy in his back story with inklings such as “ after everything that had happened” we are immediately hooked and want to find out more about the life of this man and his family. We soon discover the trauma behind both Tom and June’s childhoods as he relives his love affair, courtship and eventual marriage and the intensity and passion of their relationship and “the eternal shiningness of June” inspite of the horrific experiences and abuse she suffered as a child in care. Memories of his wife June are intense, tender and vivid. “The power of his love could hold her buoyant and eternal in the brace of an ordinary day”. This is at times harrowing and distressing to read but Barry’s compassion and sensitivity carry you through as a reader. He challenges us to confront the truth that Ireland has had to in recent years with revelations about corruption and abuse in government, the police force, and the Catholic church and priesthood. The beautiful lyrical writing is what we have come to expect of Barry. Tom’s memories are recounted in an almost dreamlike stream of consciousness style as we enter into his head and his thought processes as he recalls memories, past events,visions, ghosts, imaginings, and at times appears to go off at random tangents. Tom’s evident confusion can at times also be confusing for us as readers but all is revealed. “ ……the lid of Tom’s head lifted and sputtered indeed like a pot of potatoes just coming to the boil” . It is not until the final chapter that all is revealed as he allows himself to recall, remember and indeed relive the tragic truths surrounding his wife and children. The novel movingly encompasses universal themes of pain, love, guilt, evil, grief, tragedy, truth, family, old age, loneliness and the randomness and cruelty of God and life.It is one that will say with me. Thank you to Faber and The Reading Agency for sending our book group proof copies to read and review.

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