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. 

Latest

How NZ women won the right to vote first: The original disruptors & spiteful MPs
96463 2018-09-19 00:00:00Z History

How NZ women won the right to vote first: The orig…

by Vomle Springford

Is it right that while the loafer, the gambler, the drunkard, and even the wife-beater has a vote, earnest, educated and refined women are denied it?

Read more
Fémmina: The story of NZ's unsung suffrage provocateur Mary Ann Müller
96479 2018-09-19 00:00:00Z History

Fémmina: The story of NZ's unsung suffrage provoca…

by Cathie Bell

Mary Ann Müller was fighting for women’s rights before Kate Sheppard even arrived here, but her pioneering contribution to the cause is little known.

Read more
Ian McKellen charms his way through a documentary about his life
96472 2018-09-19 00:00:00Z Movies

Ian McKellen charms his way through a documentary …

by James Robins

Joe Stephenson’s tender documentary Playing the Part looks at McKellen's life as an actor, activist and perpetual wizard.

Read more
The Chosen Bun: A smart new burger joint opens in Stonefields
96507 2018-09-19 00:00:00Z Auckland Eats

The Chosen Bun: A smart new burger joint opens in …

by Alex Blackwood

Burgers, milkshakes and fries are not rare things to find in Auckland, so The Chosen Bun's owners were smart to be very picky about their ingredients.

Read more
The brutality experienced by the suffragettes
11636 2018-09-19 00:00:00Z Listener NZ 2015

The brutality experienced by the suffragettes

by Sally Blundell

As we mark 125 years since NZ women got the right to vote, we must remember it didn't come easily.

Read more
The case for closing prisons
96403 2018-09-18 00:00:00Z Social issues

The case for closing prisons

by Paul Little

If we want a prison system that does a better job than the current one, alternatives aren’t hard to find.

Read more
Jennifer Curtin: The feminist political scientist mixing rugby with politics
96422 2018-09-18 00:00:00Z Profiles

Jennifer Curtin: The feminist political scientist …

by Clare de Lore

Australian-New Zealander Jennifer Curtin says the lopsided nature of the Bledisloe Cup pales in comparison to the slump in transtasman relations.

Read more
Don McGlashan is out of the attic and taking flight
96439 2018-09-18 00:00:00Z Music

Don McGlashan is out of the attic and taking fligh…

by James Belfield

Don McGlashan is taking some old unloved songs on his New Zealand tour.

Read more