Reviews round-up

The critics' verdict on Sebastian Barry, A L Kennedy and Matthew Hollis.

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On Canaan's Side by Sebastian Barry

The central character of Sebastian Barry's latest novel, Lilly Dunne, as Lucy Daniels notes in the Telegraph, is "the younger sister of Willie Dunne, the volunteer in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers whose story dominated Barry's beautiful, devastating third novel, A Long Long Way (2005), about the First World War and the Easter Rising." Narrated in her old age, the story is set mainly in America, but in Barry's style "her submerged former life in Ireland resurfaces".

To James Walton in the Spectator, the lyricism of Barry's tale of emigration is less impressive: "it doesn't take much of a squint for them suddenly to look like the purest Irish corn". The novel also repeats the tactic of the "melodramatic twist" employed by Barry in The Secret Scripture. Amber Pearson in the Mail was unperturbed by this, saying that "despite a plot revelation that's unlikely to surprise anyone, the story is given freshness, lyricism and heart-breaking intimacy by Lilly's voice".

The Blue Book by A L Kennedy

"At one level", writes Sara Maitland in the Spectator, A L Kennedy's new novel, her first since 2007's Costa Prize-winning Day, "is a pretty trite love story with dark secrets to be revealed and lots of reflection on truth and lies and how the past lingers on and affects the present". The story of two fake mediums aboard an Atlantic cruise-liner - a "somewhat improbable" set-up - nonetheless produces a "remarkable book", though one with a "frustrating and unsatisfying" approach to character.

The Scotsman was more positive, calling Kennedy an "expert navigator of her characters' interior worlds... a writer at the very top of her game" and the story "stunningly original, compelling and tantalising", while Amber Pearson in the Mail believes it "displays all the verbal artistry and emotional force of" Day, "burrowing deep into the minds of its intense central characters". In the New Statesman, Olivia Laing is ambiguously positive about Kennedy's style, which switches between third-person and "a seductive, occasionally overbearing second person", which "gives Kennedy room to examine the moral ambiguity of the psychic's work": her "interest seems to be what they tell us about the commonality of human loss" and "how far one person can see into another".

Now All Roads Lead To France by Matthew Hollis

This new account of Edward Thomas' last years, cut abruptly short by the First World War, was welcomed by Robert Macfarlane in the Guardian, his style "calm and discreet, his tone witty and scholarly". Hollis himself is a poet, with and Macfarlane praises his "evocation of the London poetry scene of a century ago... Ezra Pound judo-throwing [Robert] Frost to the floor of a restaurant... TE Hulme hanging Wyndham Lewis upside-down by his trouser turn-ups from the railings on Great Ormond Street".

In the Mail, Paul Carter is equally enthusiastic, but keen to mock Thomas as a man who "couldn't take a joke... The joke in question is Robert Frost's poem The Road Not Taken". Carter enjoys Hollis' "dry wit, deep compassion and a poet's eye for evocative detail", but is apparently not that serious about poetry.

"Now All Roads Lead To France" will be reviewed in next week's New Statesman.

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