REVIEW: Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
COSTA BOOK OF THE YEAR AWARD WINNER LONGLISTED FOR THE 2017 MAN BOOKER PRIZE “A true leftfield wonder: Days Without End is a violent, superbly lyrical western offering a sweeping vision of America in the making.”—Kazuo Ishiguro, Booker Prize winning author of The Remains of the Day and The Buried Giant “A haunting archeology of youth . . . Barry introduces a narrator who speaks with an intoxicating blend of wit and wide-eyed awe, his unsettlingly lovely prose unspooling with an immigrant’s peculiar lilt and a proud boy’s humor.”—The New York Times Book Review From the two-time Man Booker Prize finalist Sebastian Barry, “a master storyteller” (Wall Street Journal), comes a powerful new novel of duty and family set against the American Indian and Civil Wars
Thomas McNulty, aged barely seventeen and having fled the Great Famine in Ireland, signs up for the U.S. Army in the 1850s. With his brother in arms, John Cole, Thomas goes on to fight in the Indian Wars—against the Sioux and the Yurok—and, ultimately, the Civil War. Orphans of terrible hardships themselves, the men find these days to be vivid and alive, despite the horrors they see and are complicit in. Moving from the plains of Wyoming to Tennessee, Sebastian Barry’s latest work is a masterpiece of atmosphere and language. An intensely poignant story of two men and the makeshift family they create with a young Sioux girl, Winona, Days Without End is a fresh and haunting portrait of the most fateful years in American history and is a novel never to be forgotten.
WARNING: GRAPHIC VIOLENCE, A LOT OF IT. PLEASE HEED THE WARNING.
Dear Sebastian Barry,
Unfortunately I have not read anything else that you wrote before starting this book, but I fully intend to correct this soon. Sunita posted an essay on her blog about starting to read the books that were long listed for Man Booker Prize this year. She previously introduced me to so many amazing books so of course I briefly looked through the reviews on some of the ones she mentioned and your book caught my eye.
It mostly caught my eye before any other books on the list because one of the reviews I saw hinted that our narrator and John Cole were more than brothers in arms, that they also were lovers. I said it before – while I do not choose my reading material *solely* based on whether it has gay/bi/lesbian couple in it, it is often an extra bonus that may help me decide to pick up the book. And honestly I was just thrilled that the book longlisted for important literary prize also may have gay love story front and center.
So I decided that I do want to spend thirteen dollars on this book. Honestly, I do not regret one penny, however what I do regret, is how many readers will not read it solely because they won’t be able to afford it. I know it is like shouting in the void at this point, but Hello Big Publishers, thirteen dollars for the e-book is a ridiculous price.
I warned about the violence in the beginning of my review, but it bears repeating, the book is VERY violent. I never felt that the narrative exploited the violence, that it was gratuitous, but of course opinions may differ on this one. The book deals with the genocide of Native Americans and with the Civil War and our heroes are right in the middle of the horrors because they serve in the Army at that time. They are also complicit in some horrors and suffer from a lot of those themselves. I did not think they were monsters, but once again opinions may differ on that, I fully realize that.
The first part of the story is especially hard to read, because it mostly deals with the war time, the second one shows some peaceful times, but it also has some very violent moments.
I thought the narration was gripping. I tried to put the book down a couple of times, simply because of all the killing; however, I could not stand away from the book and had to go back to it and finish. However, I highly recommend getting a sample to see if the writing style works for you. Thomas is not a very educated man and his sentences are not always grammatically correct. It worked for me perfectly, but it may just as easily turn you off I think.
But you would ask me what about a love story? It is definitely there and very visible, and the narrator tells us about it very matter of fact. We do not see them agonizing over the relationship or anything like that, in fact for a little bit one would think they are just brothers in arms, but then early enough in the book we get some passages like this one :
“In the darkness as we lie side by side John Cole’s left hand snakes over under the sheets and takes a hold of my right hand. We listen to the cries of the night revelers outside and hear the horses tramping along the ways. We’re holding hands then like lovers who have just met or how we imagine lovers might be in the unknown realm where lovers act as lovers without concealment.”
I believe twenty or twenty five years pass from the beginning of the book to the end, I cannot be absolutely sure and I thought Thomas and John Cole undergo significant character growth. We never hear from John Cole, Thomas is the only POV character, but I thought that through his eyes we learned everything the writer wanted us to learn about John.
“How come we lying here and guarded and inside four walls and the camp lying within this wooded land and the dogs of winter biting and scraping at our limbs? What in tarnation for? John Cole just for eternal badness keeps an eye on Carthage Daly. He don’t speak for him and he don’t speak against him but he inclined to share his cornbread because the guard don’t give Carthage one tiny morsel. Not a crumb. John Cole sharing a moiety of nothing. Tears his cornbread down the middle and when no one seeing passes it to Carthage. I watch this day after day for three four months. Got to say it is a marvel how the mortal bones stand out. I can see his hip bones and his leg bones where they thicken at the knees. His arms just whittled branches from a dried-out tree. Long hours we lie close and John Cole lays his hand on my head and leaves it there. John Cole, my beau.”
I tried very hard to stay away from the spoilers in the book. The blurb, however, mentions that at some point these two acquire an adoptive daughter Winona ( no I am not going to tell you how two men in the 19 century America acquired an adoptive daughter, but I will say that it all made sense to me). I want to end with this comment from Thomas and assure you that while the book is not genre Romance and there is a lot of tragedy in it, the ending for the main characters is quite hopeful without needing to imagine anything and if you read carefully it is even more hopeful than I originally thought.
“My heart is full of Winona but also John Cole. How come we got to have Winona? I don’t know. We been through many slaughters, John Cole and me. But I am as peaceful and easy now as I ever been. Fear flies off and my box of thoughts feels light.”
I doubt I would ever be able to reread this book ( maybe bits and pieces), but I thought it was nothing short of brilliant.