Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Sebastian Barry, Setting, USA, Western

‘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.

Africa, Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Sebastian Barry, Setting

‘The Temporary Gentleman’ by Sebastian Barry

Temporary-gentleman

Fiction – hardcover; Faber and Faber; 288 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Sebastian Barry has mined both sides of his family’s history for his fiction, and his latest novel, The Temporary Gentleman, is no exception. In this case we meet his grandfather, Jack McNulty, a man with an interesting — and dark — story to tell.

An intimate voice

Written in the form of a memoir, the book details Jack’s rather colourful life. It covers his time as a doltish student who meets and falls in love with the beautiful Mai Kirwan in the west of Ireland through to their rather tumultuous (and sad) marriage. He also relays his experiences as a “temporary gentleman” in the British Army during the Second World War to his later career as an engineer and UN observer, mainly in Africa, where he now resides.

Throughout his tale, Jack’s tone of voice is raw and intimate. You get the impression you are the person to whom he wishes to confess all his past sins. But Jack is not all he seems — and the further you get into the book, the more you realise he’s being slightly economical with the truth.

And yet, despite all his flaws, Jack appears to be a likeable man, genuinely perplexed by the trouble and pain in his life, never quite frank or brave enough to properly confront his demons, all of which makes him such a delicious fictional character to follow.

Rhythm of the prose

As ever with a Sebastian Barry novel, the prose in The Temporary Gentleman is distinctive in its lyricism and musicality. There are sentences here which “sing”, and it’s the rhythm of them that makes reading Barry such a joy. You know when something particularly exciting (or dreadful) is about to happen because there’s a sudden absence of full stops — an entire sentence can span two pages, punctuated by well-spaced commas, so that a kind of breathless quality ensues, one that is only matched by the hammering of the reader’s heartbeat.

And my heart did, indeed, hammer quite a lot while reading this book. And I also found myself becoming quietly shocked by Jack’s behaviour and his inability to take real responsibility for his actions.

In fact, the more I read, the more I wanted to hear Mai’s side of the story, and when I met Barry at his book launch in London and asked if he would ever tell her tale he said he already had — in the 1998 theatre production Our Lady of Sligo.

Family connections

Readers who are familiar with Barry’s The Secret Scripture are bound to get a new insight into Rose McNultry from this new novel — Rose is Jack’s sister-in-law and she is mentioned in passing several times during the course of The Temporary Gentleman. Similarly, Eneas McNulty, who stars in Barry’s first novel, The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, is also referenced.

It’s not that you need to have read these books beforehand (I’ve not read the one about Eneas), but they certainly deepen your appreciation for Barry’s skill as a novelist when you notice the connections between family members and their various storylines interleaved across several volumes. It’s an impressive achievement.

If I was to fault anything with the book it is that Jack’s main narrative is regularly interrupted by short interludes describing what he did last night, for instance, or what he plans to do tomorrow. Sometimes these feel a little like a prop (or a crutch), while Barry tries to figure out what to write next. But that’s a truly minor quibble.

On the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Jack McNulty’s company — even if he turned out to be the bad guy or, as the title makes clear, the temporary gentleman in Barry’s family tree.

Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Sebastian Barry, Setting, USA

‘On Canaan’s Side’ by Sebastian Barry

On-Canaan's-side

Fiction – hardcover; Faber and Faber; 272 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Back in the summer I heard Sebastian Barry give a reading of his latest novel On Canaan’s Side at the Gallery space in Foyles. I’d heard Barry do a reading at DublinSwell and had been so astonished, amazed and awed by his performance, that I just knew this would be something as equally as special. I was right.

Barry isn’t like most authors, who will merely read an extract in a well-spoken voice — he inhibits the mindset of his characters, gives them accents, waves his arms about a lot and just generally brings his written words to life in a dramatic, almost over-the-top way. He is mesmerising to listen to, but he is also mesmerising to watch.

When I attended the event I hadn’t yet read the book. But when I did get around to cracking open the spine a day or two later, I couldn’t help but hear his voice in my head, with its gentle intonations and occasional outbursts of loud excitement. It made reading On Canaan’s Side a kind of aural-visual sensory experience and probably coloured my opinion of it a great deal.

A deeply intimate confessional

The story is a deeply intimate one. Essentially it is a confessional written by the elderly Lilly Bere, who is newly bereaved: her beloved grandson, a soldier returned from the “desert war”, has killed himself.

What is the sound of an eighty-nine-year-old heart breaking?

His death sparks off a stream of memories, not only of the times in which she raised him, but of her earlier life in Dublin and her subsequent immigration to America in the 1920s, a death warrant on her own head because of her engagement to a Black and Tan and her father’s role as chief superintendent of the Dublin Metropolitan Police — both enemies of the “new Ireland”.

Over the course of 17 days (each day is a separate chapter), Lilly recalls all the joys and tragedies of her own life during the past seven decades. It is heart-rending in places, hilarious in others. It is a life marked by a fiery determination to survive — against the odds — and to forge her own way without a support network.

A long bit of string and six chastened-looking pearls. Maybe my life is a bit like that.

And that’s what makes Lilly’s life so extraordinary — she has been cut off from her family back in Ireland and never sees them again. In this new land and new culture, she must survive alone. Initially, she has her fiancé for support, but that ends badly (it would be a plot spoiler to reveal how), and yet she somehow keeps her head above water and experiences some good fortune along the way.

A gift for storytelling

Plot-wise it would be easy to suggest that Barry has shoehorned in a few unlikely coincidences and scenarios — Lilly, for instance, gets to meet Martin Luther King — but that would be to take away from his exquisite prose and gift for storytelling.

I spent much of the book totally caught up in Lilly’s adventures, from her time on the streets of Cleveland — “I was a young down and out, right enough. I did not even have the inspiration to beg […]. I might have been murdered then, and no one would notice” — to her joy at having her eight-year-old grandson sing a song for Signor Devito, a famous teacher from the Metropolitan Opera.

So Bill began to sing ‘Roses of Picardy’, that he had got Mr Nolan to teach him, after I told him it was one of his great-uncle Willie’s favourite songs. As I say, he was only eight, and his youthful voice, singing a soldier’s song, made me cry, secretly, where I sat. Indeed I wished Willie could have been there to hear it; perhaps he was, his shade creeping near, from Flanders to Bridgehampton. To cock an ear to such sweet singing, with all his own suffering and the suffering of his companions contained in the song. As if, a ghost for some seventy years, he was hearing his own young self, magically renewed by the mercies of history.

As the above quote attests, there’s a real sense of family connection here, and of history occasionally repeating itself — Lilly’s brother, Willie Dunne, from Barry’s Booker shortlisted A Long Long Way, goes to war and two generations later her grandson does the same.

A life lived in fear

And it is this that puzzles Lilly so greatly. Having lived her life in fear, she cannot fathom why her grandson, living in “free” America, would chose to sign up when he “had a chance to enjoy some sort of victory over fear”.

There’s so much more about On Canaan’s Side that I could talk about — probably one reason why it’s taken my almost six months to put my thoughts in writing — but I won’t. I’ll just say this: if you are looking for a fascinating portrait of a life well lived, with gorgeous writing and startling insight into a woman’s view of a complicated, often harsh, world, then this extraordinary novel won’t disappoint.

Finally, you may also be intrigued to know that Lilly’s sister, Annie, is the subject of another book, Annie Dunne, which I read earlier in the year and adored. The Dunne family novels, which can be read in any order, are based on Barry’s own relatives. At the reading I attended, he said it was his way of reclaiming their untold histories.

Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Sebastian Barry, Setting

‘Annie Dunne’ by Sebastian Barry

Annie-Dunne

Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 228 pages; 2002.

Annie Dunne is Sebastian Barry‘s second novel. And what a truly moving, gentle, eloquent read it is.

Having read Barry’s two latter novels — the brilliant A Long Long Way (which, incidentally, features characters introduced in Annie Dunne) and the slightly flawed The Secret Scripture — I had high expectations for this one. I wasn’t disappointed.

The story is pretty much devoid of plot. In fact, not much happens in the book at all. It’s essentially the inner monologue of a spinster, the 59-year-old Annie Dunne of the title, who shares a house with her slightly older cousin, Sarah Cullen, and spends one summer looking after her nephew’s two young children. The unnamed children, a four-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl, bring a new dimension to Annie’s sheltered and relatively lonely life. Essentially, they are a metaphor for new beginnings, but can Annie let go of her troubled past to start afresh with two youngsters in her charge?

This probably sounds like a dull premise for a novel, and to be honest, I did wonder whether the story was going to go anywhere. But Barry has such a way with words — he’s a terrrific prose writer — that it doesn’t really matter. This is the type of writing that you savour. It’s completely cliché free and every sentence has a fresh, new wonder to it. It’s like looking at the world from a different angle, one you’ve never thought to consider before. For instance, who would ever think to compare laughter to jam-making?

Sarah laughs. Her laugh is thick and chesty, like blackberries beginning to bubble in the big pot, when we are making preserves in the autumn.

The entire novel is littered with sentences like this, making it a joy to read.

And somehow, because Barry captures the minutiae of daily life so eloquently, the story sings in such a way you want to keep reading.

Of course, I’m exagerrating to say that nothing happens, because of course lots of things happen, but they are small incidents in the scheme of things. It’s set in 1959, a period of great change in rural Ireland, as horse and carts became replaced by motor cars, and country lanes were transformed by tarmac, and where the once ruling Anglo-Protestant classes were readjusting to life under Home Rule. But it’s Annie’s inner turmoil that gives the story the impetus to make the reader keep reading on.

Annie is a product of her time. A woman nearing 60 who has never married, never had children, not because she never wanted to, but because the opportunity never presented itself. There is, however, the little matter of her deformity — a hunchback caused by polio. It’s an affliction that has scarred her psychologically, but it has also tormented her in the sense she has always been an outcast.

Never one to fit in socially, she’s developed a rich inner life, and it’s her interior monologue, her thoughts, both good and bad, ugly and unflinching, which make up the prose of this book. It’s written in the present tense so there’s an immediacey to it. Much of what she thinks in the present is shaped by the past, and despite her sometimes cruel thoughts and her quick temper, this is a woman struggling to better herself despite her painful history. What shines through is her fierce intelligence, but also her harsh inner critic, the one that tells her to stop babbling and saying things she shouldn’t be saying.

It is Annie’s struggle with jealousy and rage that marks her out as peculiarly human. She is constantly misunderstood by those around her. And it is that dichotomy between what Annie feels inside and the way her actions are interpreted by others which provides the tension — and the heart-breaking emotion — that makes this novel a truly special one.

Yes, it’s occasionally maudlin and melancholy, but Annie Dunne also has quiet moments of joy and happiness. There is beauty in nature here, too, and a love for a simple way of life that no longer exists. I expect this novel, which has now earned Sebastian Barry a place on my list of favourite writers, will stay with me for quite a long time to come.

Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Sebastian Barry, Setting

‘The Secret Scripture’ by Sebastian Barry

SecretScripture

Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 320 pages; 2009.

When I read Sebastian Barry’s 2005 Booker shortlisted novel A Long Long Way several summers ago I found it one of the most moving books I’d ever read. There was something about the story of an Irish lad caught between two wars that really resonated with me, and I promptly ordered my father a copy because I knew he’d enjoy the Great War element. Almost three years later I still find myself occasionally thinking about this story, always the sign of a great piece of fiction.

Then, last August, I acquired a copy of Barry’s 2008 Booker shortlisted novel The Secret Scripture. It languished on my bedside table unopened and unread for months, and even its triumph at the Costa Book Awards in January, where it won the Costa Book of the Year Award, didn’t spur me to pick it up. Then, on my recent trip to Ireland, I discovered a copy of it in the holiday cottage I was renting and felt it was no use putting it off any longer: I had to read it to see how it measured against my very high five-star opinion of A Long Long Way.

The Secret Scripture didn’t disappoint. It is a magnificent story about memory and the tricks our minds play on us, and how society has a habit of condemning the innocent to live lives of quiet desperation and unnecessary struggle.

The story is split between two narrators, Roseanne McNulty, possibly the oldest woman in Ireland who has been a patient at Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital since 1957, and Dr William Greene, the senior psychiatrist who is charged with determining which patients can be re-released into the community once the present building is demolished.

Dr Greene, an outsider (in the sense that he’s not Catholic) grieving over the death of his wife, spends a lot of time with Roseanne, whom he describes as “my old friend” and the “oldest person in this place”.

She has been a fixture, and not only represents the institution, but also, in a curious way, my own history, my own life.

During their sessions in which he assesses Roseanne’s suitability for discharge, he finds himself confessing things to her that he would normally keep quiet. Meanwhile, Roseanne gives little of herself away, preferring to make her confessions in a secret diary that she keeps hidden under the floorboards. It is these revealing diary extracts which make up her side of the narrative.

Eventually, over the course of the book, you learn of the joys and horrors of Roseanne’s life and how she came to be incarcerated in the asylum. But because she readily admits that everything she recalls “may not be real”  and that she has “taken refuge in other impossible histories, in dreams, in fantasies” you’re never quite sure if she is a reliable narrator or not. Towards the end of the novel she confesses that her memories and her imaginings are “lying deeply in the same place” and that the process of excavating them is troublesome.

Dr Greene, who is not privy to Roseanne’s written confessional, has his own suspicions about her inconsistent memory, which he puts down to “tangled histories”:

Not only can I not get her story from herself, I have versions of her life that I think she would reject.

Eventually, these two diverse narrative threads, which dance around each other, meld together, culminating in a surprise ending, which is devastating in its impact.

Unfortunately — and this is where I tend to agree with the Costa judges who called it “a flawed novel” — this tightening of loose ends felt too contrived for my liking, too neat, too packaged. It didn’t help that I guessed the ending but had spent the last 50 or so pages convincing myself that I had it wrong, because surely Barry would leave in the ambiguities to allow the reader to come to their own conclusions about what really happened.

Does this matter though? No book is ever perfect and while The Secret Scripture might rely on two major coincidences for its climax to work, it does not detract from the highly emotional story told in such an effortless, beautiful way. And it certainly wouldn’t put me off recommending it to anyone looking for something exquisitely written, intelligent and moving.

If you liked this book, you might also like Salley Vickers’ The Other Side of You which treads similar territory in terms of narrative, content and style.

Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, historical fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Sebastian Barry, Setting, war

‘A Long Long Way’ by Sebastian Barry

Alonglongway

Fiction – hardcover; Faber and Faber; 304 pages; 2005.

It is 1915 and the Great War has just begun. Ireland, with the promise of Home Rule in its sights, agrees to send its own to fight for the nation.

Seventeen-year-old Willie Dunne, who desperately wants to please his loyalist father, a much respected member of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, joins the Army because at 5ft 6in he is too short to join the force.

But when he came home and told his father, the big, blank, broad face of the policeman wept in the darkness. And then his three sisters, Maud, Annie and Dolly, lit the candles in the sitting-room and they all felt part of the tremendous enterprise because Willie was going to be in it, and they were proud and excited, though it might last a few weeks at most, because the Germans were known to be only murderous cowards.”

Willie’s regiment, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, is sent to the muddied rat-strewn trenches of Belgium to fight for King and Country. Amid the mayhem, the bullets and the blood, Willie and his fellow soldiers eke out a harrowing existence, clinging to life by the flimsiest of threads.

During a brief sojourn home on some well-earned leave Willie finds himself caught up in the political events of the 1916 Easter Uprising. Troubled by what he sees, he begins to question whether he – and the rest of his regiment – have become the enemy of the Irish rebels. When he mentions these concerns in a letter home his father disowns him.

What follows is a heartbreaking account of one young man’s realisation that there is more to life than pleasing one’s father – and one’s country.

I had tears coursing down my cheeks as I read sections of this book filled as it is with moments of such desperate sadness. To know that Willie had endured so much — the  terror and violence and madness of the trenches — only to return to a country that had undergone a bloody revolution and no longer felt like his was very emotional. Coupled with a melancholy romance with Gretta, his childhood sweetheart, this book is a true “weepy”. But don’t let that put you off.

Sebastian Barry’s writing, so wonderfully lyrical and poignant (not surprising given that he is also a poet), is a joy to read. It is rich with the Dublin vernacular, not just in the quoted speech of the characters, but in the telling of the story itself. This makes the story come truly alive in ways that a more distant, staid narrative would not have achieved.

I adored A Long, Long Way on so many levels: its eloquent conversational prose; its ability to move a sometimes jaded reader; and its themes – the futility of war, Irish politics and how one young man learns to think for himself.

Very much reminiscent of Erich Maria Remarque’s much lauded All Quiet on the Western Front, this book, which was shortlisted for last year’s Man Booker Prize, is a devastating read with a clear, bright ring of truth. I highly recommend it if you wish to read some First World War fiction that has a slightly different slant — that of the Irish soldier caught between two wars.