Tom Kettle, the main character of Sebastian Barry's heartbreaking new novel, joined the Gardaí — Ireland's national police force — in the 1960s. His uniform was meant to withstand the elements, but it absorbed water like a sponge. This prefigured far greater injustices. "Nothing was what it was made out to be," Barry writes. "The truth included. The Gardaí. The country."

"Old God's Time" begins with a quote from the Book of Job — more foreshadowing, and not the happy kind. In the ensuing chapters, Tom will suffer numerous hardships. His woes, manifestations of systemic failings in Ireland, serve as a lens through which to examine the nation's fraught recent history.

It's the 1990s, and Tom, newly retired from the force, is a widower who has outlived his two adult children (the shocking specifics will emerge later). He expects to spend his remaining days alone in a rented house near the Irish sea. His plans change when ex-colleagues arrive to discuss a crime from Tom's early days on the job.

The officers want to know what Tom remembers about the murder of a priest who sexually abused children. Tom recalls more than he shares, and when the cops leave, he collapses in "heart-scalding guilty tears." It's the first of several powerful scenes in which Tom confronts secret trauma. Why does he feel "guilty"? We'll find out eventually, but be warned, reader: You might think you've cracked the mystery early on, but you'll be mistaken.

On its face, this is a standard cold-case crime novel. But when we learn of the extraordinary tragedies Tom has endured, it's clear that Barry, the author of two Booker Prize finalists, is up to something more ambitious. Battered by criminal conspiracy, neglect and violence, Tom's scars are Ireland's.

Born around 1930, he was frequently abused in the brutal orphanage where he grew up. As a teen with little schooling, he joined the British Army, and on behalf of the failing empire, killed people who might've been noncombatants. With the police, he saw deadly fighting between Northern Irish paramilitaries and Britain spill over into Dublin. Meanwhile, he chased down child-abusing priests who were protected by the Catholic Church.

Barry has a gift for concise image-making — retired Tom is a "citizen … of his wicker chair" — and an irreverent eye for sensory pleasures; the yellow in a painting Tom sees at Dublin's National Gallery reminds him of processed cheese from his youth. But his overreliance on lyrical prose leads to some unaccountably grand depictions of common occurrences. "His bladder was the thief of sleep," Barry writes.

On the big stuff, however — his understanding of, and empathy for, his protagonist and their country — Barry doesn't falter. His ninth novel coheres as an attentive character study, an engrossing crime story and an unsparing lament for Ireland itself.

Kevin Canfield is a regular contributor to the Star Tribune's books coverage.

Old God's Time
By: Sebastian Barry.
Publisher: Viking, 272 pages, $27.