‘Days Without End’ by Sebastian Barry

Days without end by Sebastian Barry

Fiction – hardcover; Faber & Faber;  272 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

You know when you have a favourite author and you cannot wait to read their next book and when it’s finally published you want to rip open the pages and devour it in one greedy gulp?

That’s how I feel whenever Irish author Sebastian Barry produces a new novel. I’ve read all his work (except for his debut novel, which I’m saving up) and loved them all: Annie Dunne (published in 2002); A Long Long Way (2005); The Secret Scripture (2008); On Canaan’s Side (2011); and The Temporary Gentleman (2014).

But when I read his latest novel, Days Without End, back in January, I came away from it feeling slightly disappointed and it’s taken me all this time to finally commit my thoughts to this blog.

A new life in America

Set in America during the mid-19th century, Days Without End tells the story of Thomas McNulty, a young Irishman who flees the Great Famine for a new life abroad. He signs up to the US Army and fights in the Indian Wars against the Native Americans, before joining the Oregon Trail and fighting in the American Civil War.

Along the way he meets and falls in love with “handsome John Cole”, a fellow soldier, and the pair live together as gay lovers, making their living between wars on stage dressing as women to entertain miners starved of female company.

While on the road they eventually “adopt” an indigenous girl, who has been orphaned under the most horrendous of circumstances, and raise her as their own. It’s a lovely counterpoint to the violence and the mayhem that surrounds them.

A compelling voice

Days Without End never shies away from the horrors of war and Barry refrains from turning Thomas into a hero. Instead he’s an uneducated teenager, who’s sailed across the ocean after the death of his parents and siblings, and he’s emotionally buttoned up, traumatised even, from replacing one hell hole (Ireland) with another (the American frontier). Any wonder that when he finds John Cole he sticks by him like a sailor lost at sea clinging to a life raft.

It is Thomas’s voice that makes the novel such a powerful read. He tells the story of his American adventure in lucid, stream-of-consciousness prose, with nary a pause for breath and a devout honesty, often when recalling the heat of battle, that is sometimes too painful to bear.

More sparks flew up, it was a complete vision of world’s end and death, in those moments I could think no more, my head bloodless, empty, racketing, astonished.

And of course Barry’s writing is as exquisite as ever, with beautiful turns of phrase, so lyrical it could be poetry, and every page dotted with unique descriptions that elevate ordinary things into the extraordinary. A herd of buffaloes stampeding towards them is like “a big boil of black molasses in a skillet, surging up”; soldiers digging trenches “sweat like window glass in the winter”; and dusk is “God pulling a ragged black cloth slowly across his handiwork”.

But for all the exquisite language, I had problems with this novel. It is unrelentingly violent and often gory — too gory for me, and I’m usually pretty hard to shock. It didn’t take long for me to grow bored with the never-ending amount of battles, raids and massacres depicted here, often in forensic detail.

The wounded are making the noises of ill-butchered cattle.Throats have been slit but not entirely.There are gurgles and limbs held in agony and many have stomach wounds that presage God-awful deaths.

And I never quite believed that two gay men in the Army would remain undetected for so long, or for Thomas to be so readily accepted as a woman. Of course, I’m processing the story through a 21st century mindset, and after hearing Barry talk about this book (I saw him do a reading at St George’s Church in Bloomsbury at the end of March), I came to understand that it would have been entirely possible — under the maelstrom of war you can do almost anything and take on different identities (or, in this case, genders) in order to survive.

In the grand scheme of things, my view on Days Without End doesn’t really matter. It’s a best seller and has already earned Barry the 2016 Costa Book of the Year. It has also been shortlisted for the 2017 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, the winner of which will be announced on 17 June.

For other views on this novel, please see Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers and Eric’s at Lonesome Reader.

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22 thoughts on “‘Days Without End’ by Sebastian Barry

  1. I haven’t read any of his work yet, but do have this book on my shelf waiting to be read. I have heard many great reviews so I am interested to see how I like it. I enjoyed your review!

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      • I will definitely give it a try! I get so nervous when I post a negative review, because I don’t want people to not read a book that they might really enjoy, so I always say, but that’s just me… please still read it if you want to!! 🙂

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  2. Thanks for the mention:)
    I can certainly relate to the feelings of anticipation and then being disconcerted by this book. I had the same response as you when I read Geraldine Brooks last one, The Secret Chord – it’s based on biblical truth, I know, but I found it gratuitously violent, and looking back on it now I almost wonder if Brooks was trying to make a sly point about the god so many Americans believe in.
    Does this make you want to give up on Barry, the way I feel I’ve given up on Brooks?

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    • Oh, it definitely won’t put me off reading future books by him — I went to see the reading even though I didn’t much like the book, and it did help a little in making me realise his intentions. He is the BEST author to see read, cos he does all the voices and actions and totally loses himself in the act. Have you ever seen him?

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  3. I really love his work but this novel (I just returned it to the library, only half-read, almost a first for me) seemed to be somehow too, well, straggly for me. It meandered. I kept trying to remember which territory we were in. The personal relationships were moving but somehow a little to predictable — once you got past their inherent unpredictability.
    But I’d love to have heard the reading at St. George’s Bloomsbury, my favourite church on earth….

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    • Oh yes, it’s a gorgeous church, and the perfect setting for a reading. And Barry’s so great when he gets up to read because he turns it into a real performance. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

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  4. Sounds like a very fair and balanced assessment, Kim. I think I would find the explicit violence and butchery rather hard to stomach too. There’s only so much one can take without it becoming a barrier…

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  5. Its odd but I could have sworn I had read some of Barry’s work – then I saw the list you included and I realised I must have mixed him up with someone else. Now I’m struggling to think who that could be……
    When you love an author and look forward to their next book only to be disappointed, the let down feels even more acute. I had that experience with Ian McEwan. Used to devour everything he wrote and then came Saturday, such a pretentious novel

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  6. My enthusiasm for Sebastian Barry’s work peaked with ‘A Long Long Way’ and ‘The Secret Scripture’. My problem with this one was that it is written in a diary shorthand with very long paragraphs, and the shorthand detracted from the style. Also I somewhat question if he knows US history well enough.

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    • Hmm… interesting thoughts, Tony. The diary format didn’t put me off, as it really puts you inside the head of a 17 year old boy who struggles to articulate emotions but can describe brutal battles pretty well 😉 I wasn’t aware of the long paragraphs you mention, but my copy was an uncorrected proof, which are generally unformatted, so I’m kind of used to reading books that haven’t been laid out properly. As for the US history, you are a better judge of that than me 😉

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  7. It’s interesting that you mention The Orenda because when I read that, it felt MUCH more explicitly, graphically violent than Days Without End. I mean, Boyden really goes into detail with the descriptions of tortured-to-death priests and the running of the gauntlet; Barry’s mentioning of slit throats and stomach wounds seems almost dry by comparison! (Though if you didn’t like that, don’t for heaven’s sake read Blood Meridian, which is like the dark twin of Days Without End.)

    About the boys working as girls in the saloon, my historian mother assures me that this was not uncommon and would have been seen simply as a way for enterprising (/orphaned) young’uns to make some money. I don’t think they are ever actually accepted as lovers in the army, insofar as I don’t recall anything that suggests they were openly “together” while soldiers (they may have been fairly obvious but also easy enough to ignore). And during the years that they live together as husband and wife, Thomas cross-dresses—again, maybe some aren’t fooled, but they’re making concessions to societal “norms” in a way that suggests historical accuracy, at least to me.

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    • Ha! You’re not the first to warn me off Blood Meridian 😉

      And yes, to be honest, I can’t reconcile my love of The Orenda with my distaste for Days Without End. I think it’s because I’m not used to Barry treading into this kind of territory, or maybe I just read it at the wrong time (I was sick in bed with a bad cold)… sometimes you just have to be in the right mood, you know?

      Thanks for your mother’s assurances about the cross dressing etc. At the reading Barry did explain some of this and it helped me to understand that what he’d written about would have been possible. But on initial reading I found it difficult to buy, which spoilt my enjoyment of the novel as a whole. I’m sure if I was more educated about this aspect of 1850s America it wouldn’t have bothered me as much 😉

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      • Yep yep, timing is so crucial with reading. And I have definitely had experiences where, out of not knowing whether some historical detail was realistic or not, I was yanked out of a story I had been enjoying very much—it’s pretty disorienting and can properly spoil a book!

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  8. Too bad you were disappointed by this one. I think I’ve heard enough positive buzz about this book not to knock it off my list, though. But I’ll likely end up reading a couple of his older ones first – so, no rush. I have The Secret Scriptures and haven’t read it yet.

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    • Oh do read the Secret Scriptures, which is a brilliant book — though the ending does divide readers. Interestingly, Barry has mined two sides of his family for his novels, so the character of Rose McNulty in the Secret Scripture is related to Thomas McNulty in this novel. I can’t remember the exact relationship, but I think Thomas must be Rose’s great great grandfather or some such.

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  9. While I haven’t read any of Barry’s work, we are all familiar with the disappointment experienced when an author you love changes their style or focus and starts to write books that no longer connect with you in the same way. I remember gradually falling out of love with Peter Carey’s books in the 90s, after being a great fan of his 80s books and stories. So much so, that I haven’t read any of his books since The Kelly Gang.

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    • I have a love/hate relationship with Carey; have loved some books, abandoned others. If you’ve not read Barry before, can I suggest you start with a Long, Long Way — it’s such a gorgeous but heart-rending read and gives a nice introduction to his style and themes. All his novels feature relatives from his past who he’s rescued for posterity, as it were.

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