Postal Reading group
January 2021
Notes on the book Annie Dunne Sebastian Barry

Annie Dunne is the first book by Sebastian Barry that I have read, and, at first, I had thought that this would be an appealing portrayal of life in 1950s Ireland, set in County Wicklow at a time of rapid change. However, the pace of this book is very slow, and the plot is almost trivial.

The basic story being that Annie’s nephew travels to London with his wife to find work, leaving their two children with Annie over the summer. Initially a story of Annie’s love for these children, the loss of innocence over that summer leads to changes which threaten to undermine the security of Annie’s life.

Despite the promising start, I found that the book is let down by the slow development. Given this, perhaps it is not surprising that the author’s normally good prose becomes disjointed at times, as if held back by the lack of a significant storyline. Certainly it occasionally loses the poetic quality for which, so I understand, the author’s writing is normally renowned. I also note that this is the second book in Barry’s Dunne family series, so, without having read the previous one, it is possible that I’m missing Annie’s place in the larger family story. Equally, it seems to be a widely held opinion that this is not the best example of the author’s work, and not as good as, for example, the Secret scripture.

Much of the story centres on the two characters of Annie Dunne and her cousin Sarah, with whom she lives. From the start, I found it difficult to know what to think about Annie. While her love for the two children seems real enough, but on the other hand she is quick enough to judge other members of the local community. She frequently recalls with pride her father’s former position as chief superintendent of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, before his descent into mental illness, and unremarked death in the county asylum. This doesn’t help her standing with her neighbours, who therefore view her as an outsider, while she seems to have been equally spurned by her own family. Although later parts of the book reveal an angry and unfriendly side to Annie, its difficult to know if this is her true nature, or whether she has been made bitter by her experience of the local community and her own family?

Of course, Annie’s poor standing in the local community is a product of her father’s position in the Dublin Police. Not only was she from the ‘big city’, which wouldn’t endear her to the country folk, but she was also seen as being tainted by reason of her father’s association with the English. I don’t know much of the history and politics involved, but its hardly surprising that the English weren't well liked. It might have been interesting if that theme had been better developed, and with Brexit threatening the Good Friday agreement it would have been strangely topical. On the other hand, however, perhaps we’ve had enough political stupidity? Leaving the politics aside, it does also highlight the other side of ‘close knit’ communities: they can easily turn into cliques, and those who don’t fit in gain no benefit.

Much of the real action in the story happens in the last forty pages or so when Annie’s brother-in-law, Matt, ends up in hospital as a result of a hawthorn left in the butter to preserve it (a strange custom which makes you grateful for refrigerators!) Following this the reason for the upturned bucket and the missing hen becomes clear; the boy is wrongly blamed and disappears himself. This, it seems to me, is the main point of the story, the loss of innocence, and the desire to go back to childhood, or back to the innocent time. It is interesting, however, that the author saw this as a family concern, and didn’t link it to the broader social change of the time.

In the book, the author refers to this as “that Great Fall”, presumably echoing the Genesis story which would have been familiar to Annie. However, this need not be understood in a religious way as the author of the Genesis story was, possibly only trying to make sense of what they had observed. The other side of the fall is that we are now able to understand that “change is the only constant!” This is implicit in the laws of physics: only when everything is in a uniform state will such change cease, and this will be the end of the universe. It seems odd to end a book on such a depressing note, complete with the quote from Shelley “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair”. Either this is intended as a warning, or a statement of fact. In the latter case it may be some comfort that the death of the universe is several billion years away.

In summary, while this is a slow paced book, without any strong plot, the general standard of the writing does hint at the standard of some of the author’s other work. Reading the first book in the Dunne family cycle would, possibly, help to explain Annie’s place in the story. Even without that, however, its a reasonable book with a deeply philosophical ending. Even today, the desire to go back to a more innocent age is still common. The trouble is not only that we can’t, but also where do you stop? The stone age? Just before mankind split from the apes? The pre-Cambrian?

Comments by Nicholas Cutler