Book Review – Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
Steven Boykey Sidley
I have always had a irrational distaste for books written entirely in a deep vernacular, not so much in the dialogue, but more in the narrative sections, perhaps driven by a judgement that the descriptions in streetwise or pidgin or dialect or the diminished vocabulary of the uneducated would flatten the horizons of language.
This book proves me poorer for my prejudice.
The hero and first-person narrator of this book is Thomas McNulty, a young boy grown up hard and unschooled in the tragic and famine-ravaged Ireland of the early 1800s. Jumping ship after the death of all who love him he finds himself penniless and friendless and starving in America. A chance meeting during a search for a sleeping shelter brings him to the equally young John Cole who will become his lifelong brother-in-arms and more.
The story and the writing achieve two remarkable feats. The first is the language, melded from poor grammar, from Irish gutter slang, from old words put to new use and from the soaring sentences of Thomas’s simple but profound imagination without the author having to rely on any of the language of high literature. Barry just keeps this up – on and on for pages at a time, without flagging and stalling or digressing. I have never read anything quite like it, so unusual is its source, this man-child Thomas McNulty, buffeted cruelly (and a occasionally kindly) from a deeply felt life.
The second feat is the weaving in of a transgender theme, unusual (if not unique) in a book that takes place in centre of this unkempt 19th Century America, heaving in acts of quiet genocide during the Indian Wars around Missouri and then, later, its own war on itself, the Civil War. This trans plot stands out as a bright thread in this love story, a little surprising perhaps, but bringing its own colour squarely to the plot, completely unhampered by any sermonising on the politics of gender.
Over the course of the book, the bulk of which stretches about 15 – 20 years, Thomas Macnulty and John Cole and a small Indian girl orphaned by slaughter find their way through both the harshness and charity of strangers, the heart-breaking bond of loyalty between men who killed innocents, cold, starvation, betrayals and a threadbare peace to an end that uplifts and ennobles, the way all grand love stories should.
Both the so-called Indian Wars and Civil Wars are wrenchingly rendered though the simplicity of Thomas’s eyes, giving a most personal view of this period’s history and its emotionless brutalities. And the story and plot which winds through these these historical events is tense, clever and very different to the usual historical fiction fare. I will not forget the cast of characters – even the lesser ones (a remote mining town dance hall proprietor, an German interlocutor between the army and tribes, a grief-stricken major, a ‘Negro’ cannon bearer).
Sebastian Barry, 62, has written 7 novels and 13 plays. He was won the Costa Book of the Year (among numerous others) and is a perennial shortlister (Man Booker, three times, including this year).
It is my first time into the breach with him, but it will not be my last.