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.

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Courtney Collins, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Western

‘The Burial’ by Courtney Collins


Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin UK; 310 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Courtney Collins’ The Burial is such an extraordinarily powerful book it’s hard to believe it was written by a first-time novelist. From the opening line — “If the dirt could speak, whose story would it tell?” — to the closing sentence, I was held in thrall by the exquisite prose, the luscious descriptions of the bush and a cast of curious well-drawn characters. But most of all I was captivated by the storytelling.

Female bushranger

The Burial tells the tale of Jessie Hickman, a female bushranger who rustles horses and duffs cattle, in the years after the Great War. The book opens in dramatic style: she’s just given birth to a premature baby while on the run and she’s buried it alive.

In a distinctive and unusual twist, it is the dead baby that narrates the story — a literary device that feels more natural and less showy or intrusive than you might initially expect. Indeed, the baby has so much sympathy for her mother, that you immediately warm to Jessie despite her track record as livestock thief, convict and murderer.

Through a series of flashbacks we learn about Jessie’s colourful past, which includes a stint as a circus rider and a two-year stretch in prison.  We also learn how she was apprenticed to Fitzgerald “Fitz” Henry, a fiery red-headed man living in a remote valley, to help him break in horses. She later marries Fitz, even though he treats her appallingly and is violent and abusive from the first day they met — any wonder she decides to do him in.

You might like to think of your own mother knitting blankets expanding outwards in all colours while you were in her womb. Or at worst vomiting into buckets. On the eve of my birth, my mother concertinaed my father while I lay inside her. Six foot, eight inches. She brought him down with the blunt side of an axe.

But this is not just Jessie’s story — the narrative also covers the two men who are on her trail: the opium-addicted Sergeant Barlow and the aboriginal tracker Jack Brown who secretly knows (and loves) Jessie but never lets on.

Adventure and romance with a Western feel

Part adventure tale, part romance, part Western (but without the gunslinging), The Burial has already earned Collins comparisons with Cormac McCarthy. I haven’t read enough of McCarthy’s work to tell whether the praise is justified, but I did find it reminiscent of Paulette Jiles’ civil war novel Enemy Women, which I loved when I read it more than a decade ago.

There’s a beautiful, haunting quality to the writing, which brings to life a diverse range of characters, as well as an Australian landscape of heavily wooded mountains and big open star-filled skies.

And Jessie, who is based on a real female bushranger, is wonderful company: feisty, unafraid, daring and brave.

The Burial is a dazzling book and one that has already garnered critical acclaim and prize nominations aplenty in Australia. It has been optioned for a feature film, which is hardly surprising — Collins writes with an eye for detail without ever losing sense of the bigger picture, which is to tell a dramatic story in a visual and exhilarating way.  It will be published in the UK by Allen and Unwin on May 2.

Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, Granta, Patrick deWitt, Publisher, Setting, USA, Western

‘The Sisters Brothers’ by Patrick deWitt


Fiction – Kindle edition; Granta Books; 272 pages; 2011.

Canadian author Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers has been shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize and longlisted for this year’s Giller Prize.

It is the kind of book that could best be described as an enjoyable romp. It’s billed as a Western, but I saw it more as a road story — with guns and horses.

Set during the California gold rush of the 1850s, it is narrated by Eli Sister, one half of the Sisters brothers of the title, who makes his living as an assassin. But Eli is not your average killer for hire — he has a sensitive side, troubled by his weight, worried he’ll never find a woman to settle down with and constantly dreaming of a different life, perhaps running a trading post “just as long as everything was restful and easy and completely different from my present position in the world”.

His elder brother Charlie is more what one would imagine as a typical killer — he is ruthless, is attracted to violence and doesn’t suffer fools. But he’s also an alcoholic and his love of brandy means he spends a lot of his time on the road nursing horrendous hangovers.

At the beginning of the novel we learn that the pair have been hired by the Commodore — a mysterious man whom we never meet — to kill gold prospector Hermann Kermit Warm (now, that’s what I call a great character name!). The brothers are based in Oregon and Warm is supposedly in California, hence their journey on horseback to hunt down their prey. Neither of them know why they have been asked to kill Warm, but this is the least of their concerns: there is tension between them because Charlie has been hired as the “lead” and therefore will get a greater share of the fee. Eli is not pleased.

Part of the reason that the novel is so entertaining is the relationship between the two brothers. The banter and constant, often petty, arguments between them are quite hilarious, especially the way in which they wind each other up and try to push emotional buttons just to get a reaction.

‘What’s that? You’re not smiling, are you? We’re in a quarrel and you mustn’t under any circumstances smile.’ I was not smiling, but then began to, slightly. ‘No,’ said Charlie, ‘you mustn’t smile when quarreling. It’s wrong, and I dare say you know it’s wrong. You must stew and hate and revisit all the slights I offered you in childhood.’

While we only ever see things from Eli’s perspective, he is a genuinely likable character, with just a few (quite serious) flaws. But what makes him so empathetic is that he recognises these flaws — “When my temper is up everything goes black and narrow for me. […] I do not regret that the man is dead but wish I had kept better hold of my emotions. The loss of control does not frighten me so much as embarrass me” — and strives always to improve himself.

He loves his brother, but wishes he wasn’t so free and easy with the drink — and his gun.

At first, his rather stilted old-fashioned voice takes some getting used to — mainly because it is free from contractions (these only appear in reported speech) — but there’s a lovely rhythm to it which makes for a refreshing change.

My problem with the novel lies mainly with the story arc. The first half is essentially a series of set pieces strung together. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, because they demonstrate the brothers’ less obvious differences and their rivalries. This scene, in which Eli gives a woman he meets a generous tip, perfectly captures the contrast between them, but also the bond that they share:

She dropped the coin into her pocket. Peering down the hall in the direction Charlie had gone she asked, ‘I don’t suppose your brother’ll be leaving me a hundred.’ ‘No, I don’t suppose he will.’ ‘You got all the romantic blood, is that it?’ ‘Our blood is the same, we just use it differently.’

But the second half, in which the brothers find Warm and then set about the task for which they’ve been hired, falls a bit flat. It doesn’t all go according to plan — that would be far too obvious — but it does get a bit melancholic. This isn’t helped by Eli doing a little too much soul-searching —  “I thought, Perhaps a man is never meant to be truly happy. Perhaps there is no such a thing in our world, after all” — and later admitting that, “Sometimes I feel a helplessness”.

If there is a moral to this story it might be this: that hired killers will get what’s coming to them, eventually.

For two more takes on this novel, courtesy of my fellow Shadow Giller jurors, please see KevinfromCanada’s review and The Mookse and the Gripes’ review.

Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Nina Vida, Publisher, Setting, Soho Books, USA, Western

‘The Texicans’ by Nina Vida


Fiction – paperback; Soho Press; 304 pages; 2006. Review copy courtesy of the author.

I can’t remember the last “Western” novel I read; it’s not a genre I find particularly interesting, but I put that down to a childhood filled with F-Troop re-runs on TV!

Nina Vida’s The Texicans is set during the mid-19th century, about 18 or so years before the American Civil War.

The story spans 12 years in the life of Joseph Kimmel, a Missouri school teacher, who decides to give up his job in order to tie up his deceased brother’s business interests in San Antonio, Texas. Somewhere along the way, he gets distracted and never quite makes it to San Antonio. He spends four years in the newly established Castroville instead, where he marries a German immigrant, Katrin, not because he loves her, but to save her from the local Indian chief.

Life in the mountains

The couple head for the mountains to make a new life for themselves, acquiring a handful of misfits, including two escaped African slaves and their families, along the way. This is risky business for Joseph, because having negro sympathies could earn him a lynching. However, as a Jew born to Polish immigrants, he knows what it is like to be cast aside and treated as not quite human.

Much of the story revolves around the adventures and dramas as Joseph begins to establish his own town known as Kimmelsburg. It’s a tough way of life and there are many battles to be fought with local Indian tribes, including the Comanche and Tonkaways.

Meanwhile, as Joseph struggles to love the woman he married, he falls for Aurelia Ruiz, the daughter of a Mexican man and his Anglo wife. But Aurelia, who has made a name for herself as a healer (or witch), is already married to one of the runaway slaves and is therefore out of bounds. But this thwarted love affair adds an extra dimension to a story that is already ripe with drama and intrigue.

Odd structure but gripping narrative

Sadly, I think the book, while eloquently written, suffers a little from its odd structure. It opens with the story of Aurelia, and explains how she developed her healing talent, was later married off to a cruel white man and eventually lives with a tribe of Comanche indians. It’s a rip-roaring narrative that I thoroughly enjoyed, but then, oddly, her story seems to end and we’re suddenly thrust into the world of Joseph Kimmel, never to truly return to Aurelia’s point of view.

The characters are also perplexing, in the sense that I found it very hard to identify with them. Joseph is a complete enigma: he seems so socially liberal and kind-hearted and generous, but the ways in which he treats his wife, barely acknowledging her and showing no love or fondness, is hard to reconcile.

Equally, Katrin seems incredibly strong and resilient in all matters except where her husband is concerned, and Aurelia, by far the most interesting person in the whole book, seems to flit around the periphery of the story, never taking centre stage.

But what I liked most about The Texicans is the refreshingly honest presentation of history, free from political correctness. This is a world where settlers — white and black — must learn to live with the fear of being scalped by Indians and lynched by the Texas rangers. In some ways it reminded me of Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, although Vida tends to paint the pioneers in a rose-coloured light that would make Grenville quake at the knees.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Fourth Estate, historical fiction, Paulette Jiles, Publisher, Setting, USA, Western

‘Enemy Women’ by Paulette Jiles


Fiction – paperback; Fourth Estate; 302 pages; 2003. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Remember the Lassie movies? I remember one particular one — Lassie Come Home I think — in which the collie overcomes great obstacles and distances to return home to her owner. She has had such a difficult journey her little paws drip blood and you don’t expect her to survive. It sounds pathetic, but I remember crying my eyes out at the end. It’s odd, I know, but I can’t help comparing the emotional impact of that old black and white movie with Paulette Jiles’ Enemy Women.

Set in America during the Civil War, the heroine, Adair Colley, is imprisoned under (false) accusations of being a Confederate spy. Feisty and determined, the 19 year-old escapes jail and goes on an amazingly tortuous journey to reunite her family torn asunder by the war. During her long walk home we see her being worn down mentally and physically, courting danger at every turn. She has many narrow escapes and before long the reader begins to wonder if she will ever reach her destination at all.

I won’t spoil the ending, but let me say it was like watching Lassie Come Home all over again. I’m not ashamed to say I had tears coursing down my cheeks by the time I turned the last page.

This is a brilliant book, extremely evocative of a past era, and while it plays the emotion card, it’s never cloying or overly sentimental. It will, I’m sure, make a brilliant movie should the screen rights ever be sold. Take your tissues.