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.