Book review: Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

by Charlotte Grimshaw / 17 February, 2017

Sebastian Barry. Photo/Alamy

Sebastian Barry’s latest is a touching love story, a history lesson and a bloodbath.

Days Without End is the latest instalment in Sebastian Barry’s series of novels that follow the lives of two Irish families.

Thomas McNulty has survived the famine that killed his parents and sister. A starving, scrawny boy, he leaves Ireland for a new life in the US, enduring a trip so arduous that many on board die. He ends up destitute in Missouri and, while ­sheltering from the rain under a hedge, meets another wandering boy, John Cole, who will become his companion for life.

Barry is as much a playwright as a novelist, and the narrative is a sustained exercise in historical vernacular. It’s a tale told by McNulty, an extraordinarily intense saga of butchery, conquest, treachery and love. In his colourful, uneducated, laconic drawl, McNulty evokes America’s grand scale: the violence is beyond belief, the human behaviour extreme, the splendour of the landscape breathtaking.

McNulty and Cole find work first as dancers, dressing as girls for audiences of lonely miners. When they get too old for the work, they sign up for the army. They are lovers and McNulty is slight and feminine, yet they’re both at ease with the masculine business of war. They’re excellent soldiers, throwing themselves into savagery when they’re sent to fight the Sioux, able to participate easily in the slaughter of Native ­Americans because, as McNulty says, “we were nothing ­ourselves, to begin with”.

The Irish have been so brutalised by subjugation and famine, by the cruelty of the outward journey, and by the shock of alienation in a new land, that they have no problem with genocide, razing whole settlements, bayoneting women and babies, leaving no one alive.

Barbarism, McNulty’s story suggests, is the foundation for the great and ­powerful nation he’s helping to form. His ­descriptions of the mad exhilaration of slaughter – the crazy high followed by a strange, subdued low – are mingled with a vivid portrayal of the landscape. It’s a mingling of cruelty and beauty that offers a historical explanation for that characteristic cultural blend: American sentimentality and violence.

The two young men fight on the Union side during the Civil War, a period of horror and mayhem, with Americans killing each other and ­Confederate soldiers committing appalling atrocities on blacks. It’s gruesome, ­shocking and uncompromising. There is little free will, there is only context, and everyone is potentially a savage.

And yet there’s love. During ­ongoing skirmishes with Native Americans, Cole and McNulty find themselves taking charge of a young Sioux girl, Winona, who becomes their adopted daughter. McNulty, who’s more at home in a dress than breeches, becomes the girl’s de facto mother, and so they create a little household.

The unconventional family is so warmly portrayed as to suggest an ­element of anachronism or idealisation, yet the relationship between the three isn’t unlikely or implausible per se. What’s slightly discombobulating, as McNulty might put it, is the modern take, one of pure, untroubled acceptance, rendered in the vernacular of the time.

But this is McNulty’s viewpoint, and in fact the men mostly hide their ­relationship, and Winona is never accepted by society as Cole’s daughter, and is banned from school because she’s Indian. So, belief is strained for a moment, there’s a hesitation, and then the ­narrative ­gathers force again. It’s a touching love story, a history lesson and a ­bloodbath, ­completely gripping until the end.

DAYS WITHOUT END, by Sebastian Barry (Faber, $36.99)

This article was first published in the January 28, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter. 

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