Book Review: Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

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I have had mixed experiences with prize-winning novels in the past; I sometimes feel that the qualities of these books so lauded by the critics differ to those that I might look for myself in a novel. I didn’t actually know that Days Without End had been nominated for the Costa Book Awards and was in fact halfway through reading it when it was announced. I have to admit that it’s not something I would usually gravitate towards, but I have been trying to read more recent releases and I was drawn as much by its beautiful and unusual cover as by the fact that it dealt with a period of history that I haven’t had much opportunity to explore (it spans a large period of the nineteenth century, moving from the American-Indian Wars into the American Civil War).

Dealing with sweeping and complex themes such as love, belonging, the brutality of war, national identity and the conflicts and contradictions inherent in human nature, the novel follows the life of Irish immigrant and soldier Thomas McNulty across the vast plains of the nineteenth century Midwest as he fights in brutal battles, falls in love, explores his identity and comes to terms with who he is. His love for fellow soldier and lifelong partner John Cole is poignantly and elegantly portrayed; given that part of Barry’s inspiration for the novel was his own experience of his son coming out as gay, the unwavering purity of their love for one another is all the more touching and meaningful. The unconventional family that they form together with Winona, a Sioux Indian girl orphaned by events in which McNulty and John Cole have themselves participated, serves proof that love comes in many forms.

Barry’s unflinching depictions of warfare, death and the savagery of battle, firstly against the Indians and later during the American Civil War, are perhaps all the more stark against the backdrop of these vividly evoked relationships and the peace and harmony of McNulty’s life between the wars. McNulty’s inner conflict between the inhumanity of his and his fellow soldiers’ actions in the midst of war, and his developing consciousness of the hypocrisy and cruelty inflicted on other human beings in the name of God and country, is played out throughout the novel: “We blunder through and call it wisdom but it ain’t. They say we be Christians but we ain’t. They say we are creatures roused by God above the animals but any man that has lived knows that’s damned lies.” As his life progresses and he starts to think of Winona as his daughter, McNulty also struggles increasingly with the hatred, intolerance and persecution of Indians so prevalent in American society, again something that he has himself actively contributed towards as a soldier: “And she a better girl than any living in America, John avers. God damn bitter hearted world. God damn pig-headed world. Blind souls. Can’t they see what she is?”

One of the most striking aspects of the novel for me was its unique first person perspective: written as McNulty would speak, I have to admit that I found it somewhat jarring to read, especially at first. Normally, a key criterion for my enjoying a book is my ability to get completely lost in it, to forget where I am and to be completely swept away by the narrative. Days Without End, on the other hand, took a lot of concentration. The unusual grammar and sentence structure, together with the complete lack of speech marks, gave the narrative a rather intangible, almost dreamlike quality that I found difficult to “grip”, for want of a better word. Having said this, Barry’s writing has an undeniable grace and artistry that I could nevertheless appreciate. Each sentence was in some way unique in its turn of phrase and the way that it skilfully framed the novel’s issues.

I’m really glad I read this book because it emphasised to me that a novel can have value and be appreciated in a number of ways. I admired it because of Barry’s incredible mastery of language and his honest and fearless treatment of a variety of weighty concepts and issues. On the other hand, I wasn’t gripped by it. It was a story to be taken in small, bite-sized chunks and slowly digested, which contrasts greatly with my usual preference of lying prone in one position long enough to create a groove in whatever piece of furniture I happen to be on at the time because I am too absorbed in my book to move. Two ways of appreciating a book according to what you want to get out of reading it. I read for escapism, so I’m never going to enjoy something as much if I can’t lose myself in it. I will say this, however: if you’re looking for something exquisitely written, unique and thought-provoking, this is the novel for you.

Star Rating: 3.5/5

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