Review: Days Without End

This novel, by Sebastian Barry, was the Costa Book of the Year in 2016.

Wikipedia says: “Sebastian Barry (born 5 July 1955) is an Irish playwright, novelist and poet. He is noted for his dense literary writing style and is considered one of Ireland’s finest writers.

Barry’s literary career began in poetry before he began writing plays and novels. While he was once considered a playwright who wrote occasional novels, in recent years his fiction writing has been more successful than his work in the theatre.

He has twice been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for his novels A long Long Way (2005) and The Secret Scripture (2008), the latter of which won the 2008 Costa Book of the Year and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. His 2011 novel On Canaan’s Side was longlisted for the Booker. In January 2017, Barry was awarded the Costa Book of the Year prize for Days Without End, hence becoming the first novelist to win the prestigious prize twice.”

Sebastian Barry

Days Without End is a poetical, historical novel, set largely on the American frontier in the mid nineteenth century; its themes are love and survival.  The two principal characters are Thomas McNulty, the narrator, an Irish immigrant, aged about 15, initially, and John Cole, a homeless boy of about the same age, from New England.  Their tale begins as dancing girls – yes, boys dressed as girls – in a mining town saloon where they offered the apparent fantasy of women to rough, woman-less men.  They then join the army, which meant growing up with soldiers in hostile geography made all the more dangerous by the presence of Indians, a largely unwilling enemy. Thomas and John face near-constant hardship of savage fighting, bad weather, poor food and non-existent pay, but they find a mission and true comradeship in the army.  An Indian girl is captured, domesticated by the fort commander’s wife and assigned as servant to Thomas and John, who are then drawn into the Civil War, fighting on the Union side through battles which amounted to human slaughter.  At the end of an army enlistments, Thomas, John and Winona, the Indian girl, who is treated as John’s daughter, settle temporarily in Grand Rapids where they are entertainers, but they are drawn back into the Civil War, leaving Winona in Grand Rapids.  They are taken prisoners by the Southern Army, and live through terrible hardship, but eventually find their way back to Grand Rapids, from which the three of them set out to help a homesteader in Tennessee.  But peace is elusive: Winona is wanted in a hostage exchange for the daughter of the fort commander.  Thomas accompanies her, and, after a bloody fight in which he kills an army officer, he returns her to the Tennessee homestead.  But then, Thomas is arrested for having left the army before his papers were signed.  In custody, it is revealed that he killed the officer, and her faces the death penalty.  I won’t reveal the conclusion.

The characters are well drawn, including minor characters: army officers, soldiers, entertainers, Indians and miscellaneous blacks.  From what I remember of my American history, it paints an accurate picture of America 150 years ago.  I’ve called this ‘a poetic, historical novel’  because the narrator, Thomas, speaks in the most picturesque language, which is un-accustomed but very effective.  It does, however, make the process of reading a little more laborious.  Also, Thomas, occasionally draws on vocabulary which in very doubtful for an uneducated immigrant boy.

Having said that, Days Without End is a unique reading experience, and a good story, well-told.

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