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Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

Days Without End (2016)

by Sebastian Barry

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Showing 1-5 of 22 (next | show all)
I'd been struggling to find a way to describe this whale of a book, until I came across a review by Peter Parker that described it better than I could. Here then, is Parker's POV paraphrased

Teenage Thomas McNulty sails from famine-blighted Sligo to America with nothing but a mouthful of poetry. There he meets "Handsome John Cole" with whom he enlists and their remarkable love story unfolds without fuss against the savage background of The Indian Wars and the American Civil War. They and their adopted Native American daughter fight for survival in a world that is as full of wonder as it is of horror

Parker is right; the richness of the language is as lush as the landscapes of the mid West through which they charm, slog, fight and sometimes, yes, slaughter their way, hoping for nothing but a little peace and tranquility. Most comparisons of this book are with Brokeback Mountain; I can't say, I haven't read that book. But for me it was more resonant of Little Big Man or even The Last Confederate Widow Tells All. Its an astonishing and poetic work that will stay with you ( )
  Opinionated | Oct 17, 2017 |
Thomas McNulty , aged barely 17 , flees the Irish famine for the USA. In the 1850's, he joins the US Army , fighting in the Indian Wars- the Sioux and Yurok . With his brother in arms, John Cole, he goes on to join the Civil War. In between battles scenes is the touching story of two young men, and the makeshift family that they create with a young Sioux girl .

The battle scenes far outweighed the more interesting and touching story of Thomas, John and young Winona. The three led an unconventional life, which was by far the more interesting part of the book for me. I suppose I learned some details of the American Indian Wars as well as the Civil War, but overall, this was not the book for me.

3.5 stars. ( )
  vancouverdeb | Sep 18, 2017 |
The following review contains a few potential minor spoilers. In my opinion, these details do not spoil much and are established fairly early in the narrative, but I feel it's only fair to mention their inclusion for readers who desire a clean slate.

Initially, I struggled with believing a word of this novel. Told from the perspective of Thomas McNulty, Days Without End illustrates the setting and period in a manner that feels extremely authentic. The problem had to do with the story itself: two gay men, one who commonly wears dresses, along with their daughter, fight in the biggest American battles of the 1850s and 60s, and are generally well liked. It sounds ludicrous, does it not? Because, frankly, how many such people could there have been in those years? The more I thought about it and the deeper I read, the more I began to question my original doubt. It's not at all ludicrous. Even the part about being well liked seemed accurate as I got to know these characters. This is the biggest compliment I can give Sebastian Barry and his most recent novel—Barry took a very hard-to-sell story and made it not only convincing, but enjoyable.

Evocative of Cormac McCarthy in its blend of lyrical prose and brutal western themes, Days Without End is a different kind of story all together. It's an improbable historical novel of epic proportions in a small package. Its blend of a less-educated vernacular with gorgeous and insightful passages is hard to believe at times, but like the story itself, it works surprisingly well. Perhaps it is exactly because of the implausibility of language and story that this novel excels. Without the unique perspective and the powerful lyricism, this novel would likely be just another addition to the long list of fictional accounts of the American Civil War without anything to set it apart.

Days Without End is constantly immersed in tales of war and of family. The “war” in the novel perhaps drags on a big too much, especially considering the brevity of the novel. For my benign tastes, there were a few too many conflicts. By the time I arrived at the fourth or fifth major conflict, I didn't much care about the results. I suspected the outcome would be similar to all those that preceded it. I'd have preferred a little more time spent on the family aspect, though surely the two overlap considerably. Another reader may have hoped for the opposite.

Days Without End is one of those novels that seems so simple in so many ways that you can imagine the author whipped it out in a matter of weeks and didn't need to look back. It's short and it's straight-forward. But you can also imagine the author spent considerable time with each and every sentence. They're painstakingly beautiful, yet they smack of the language of the time and place. Whether Barry labored over the making of Days Without End or not, the talent is obvious. Here is a story that glosses over some of the rough edges of mid-nineteenth century America, but sharpens others. The result is a gritty but beautiful novel, a fable where uncertainty melts away one page at a time.

Man Booker Prize 2017:
Days Without End stands a good chance of making the shortlist, in my opinion. It's an excellent contender with a strong historical narrative. Though some readers may be turned off by its implausible themes, it is because of the superb handling of these themes that this book rises above other well-written Civil War novels. Perhaps the greatest deterrent for shortlisting Days Without End is that it is yet another book about America in a year where perhaps there are too many nominees about the American experience. I feel confident that Days Without End will be shortlisted and will be an excellent contender for the top award, but I have doubts that Barry will bring home the prize this year. ( )
  chrisblocker | Sep 12, 2017 |
I am not fully certain of my thoughts on this book yet. It is the kind of book that sinks in slowly and I think more reflection is required. In many ways the book unfolds the way a life unfolds, the way the American prairie unfolds. The time and the place are captured in a way in a way that perfectly conveys the sense of place and yet in a way that perhaps no modern American could, suffused as we are with our own history, our own sense of being American. Of course we have to remember that "America" as experienced by McNulty and John Cole is itself a more elusive concept than the more defined nationalism we carry today. The book is unflinching in the brutality that occurs, but also equally open-handed with love and community building, in its tenderness, yes, its tenderness. The writing is deceptively simple, and although the book is at times shocking, what might be most important about this story is what is not said, or more exactly the way it is not said. This is the story of one man's journey. It deals with his life, with the complexity of what it means to be human, and with the dangers of seeing people as the other, with gender fluidity, with race, poverty, and love. And yet the novel doesn't actually address any of these things and this may be its greatest strength, the way it seeps under you skin -- subtly, quietly, and with humanity. ( )
  dooney | Sep 7, 2017 |
Sebastian Barry is a highly respected and fêted Irish author, and this latest book has already won the Costa Best Book award for 2016.

The story opens in 1851, when the narrator, Thomas McNulty, meets his future friend, lover, and partner, John Cole, under a hedge in Missouri. They’re both young and broke and join together to find ways to support themselves, falling in love along the way. After a couple of years masquerading as young women to serve as dance partners for miners, they outgrow their roles and join up with the Army. As soldiers they remain side by side, experiencing the Indian wars on the western plains of Nebraska and Wyoming, the Civil War in Maryland and Virginia, Andersonville prison camp, and finally farm life in Tennessee (with interruptions along the way). They adopt an American Indian orphan, Winona, and together the three of them make a family that does its best to stick together through some of the country’s most turbulent times.

Barry is an Irish writer and McNulty is an Irish migrant to the US, and Irishness pervades this novel. I loved that aspect of it, because it gives life to the historical fact that over a million Irish people immigrated to the US between 1840 and 1860, many because of the Great Famine. They were Catholic, poor, and desperate, and they were looked down on by the “Scotch-Irish” Protestants who preceded them and settled in the southern US. McNulty takes note of the other Irishmen he meets, many of whom are also recent arrivals and who have been conscripted into the Union Army. This is a part of American history that isn’t as well known as the Ellis Island migration period, which tends to dominate our understanding of 19th and early 20thC immigration.

The novel is essentially structured as three parts, with the first part comprising McNulty and Cole’s pre-Civil War experiences, the second comprising the Civil War and Andersonville, and the third their post-Civil War lives. Soldiering and the consequences of actions they take while serving have ramifications that persist over decades, and it is only at the very end of the book that they achieve some sort of stable, predictable future. The war sections are violent and explicit, although as other reviewers have noted, the beautiful language and the juxtaposition of brutal human actions with the stunning natural setting can make the violence seem removed. This distancing is exacerbated by the style, which tells the story entirely through McNulty’s POV and features little direct dialogue. McNulty claims to be uneducated and not very bright, but his narration is eloquent and insightful. Some readers won’t buy the contradiction, but I did (maybe it fell too neatly into the Irish Storyteller stereotype, but it worked for me).

The novel is all about the tension between the brutality of which human beings are capable and their equally intense capacity to love and build relationships and communities. The soldiers who fight the Sioux, punctuated by their fight of brother against brother in the Civil War, build communities and relationships among themselves at the same time they are destroying Native American ones. McNulty and John Cole fall in love with each other and that’s what matters to them, not their genders or what that love signifies to others. They extend their love to Winona, fiercely and absolutely, and protecting her is the one thing you can see dividing them. McNulty presents himself as a woman, first for practical economic reasons, then for self-protection, and eventually because he’s comfortable that way, but it doesn’t lead to much rumination on gender, it is just who he is. The novel seems to be trying to find and convince us of the universality of human experience.

It also made me think, especially in the Indian wars sections, that human brutality is at its most horrible when we don’t see the humanity in others. McNulty respects the Sioux tribal chief but many of his fellow soldiers just see “Indians” who need to be conquered or driven out. Indians are killed and murdered the same way animals would be, without second thought. And the soldiers’ actions are worse because they seem so routinized. It’s just what you do when your opponent isn’t someone you recognize as having the same qualities as you. Barry does a masterful job of showing these qualities through individual behavior, rather than attributing them to a larger ideology or political consensus. I knew the book was violent, but the final violent event got to me despite the fact that I was semi-prepared for it. I knew it was coming, I could see it coming, and I couldn’t do anything about it. It wasn’t so much the individual losses as the sense that this WAS the story of the conquest of the American West, and this event had hundreds of others behind and in front of it.

A friend observed in her review that this didn’t feel like an “American” novel, and I’ve thought a lot about that as I was reading and since I finished. My initial reaction was that it was definitely an American novel, but I also think now that it is not the novel most American authors would have written. It’s almost impossible for Americans not to see this history retrospectively, through the lenses of later immigrant waves and a consolidated American continent. In some ways that is what makes Barry’s novel so valuable to me: this IS the America of the 1850s through 1870s, if we’re talking about the plains and intermountain west. This territory wasn’t “American” in the sense that the east, south, and midwestern US had become. He nails the look and feel of Nebraska and Wyoming (as well as Missouri and Tennessee), and the wildness and savagery of the landscape and the human cost of conquering it sit side by side with its natural beauty.

A lot of discussion around this novel has centered on the identity, gender, and race issues: McNulty and John Cole’s relationship, their adoption of a Sioux girl, and McNulty’s gender fluidity. I certainly noted and appreciated these aspects, but I didn’t find them as unrealistic as some critics did or as symbolically important as other readers, perhaps because I was reading this as a story about one man’s journey in an unsettled, violent era. If there was anywhere you could create a “found family” and reinvent yourself, it had to be the American West in the mid-19thC. So little was established or stable, and survival and comradeship counted for more than conformity, by a lot.

My one quibble with the novel is that the last quarter, while incredibly powerful, moves too quickly and packs too much in compared to the first three-quarters of the story. I accepted how the story ended, but the resolution felt rushed. I’ll keep thinking about it, though. It is definitely a book that has stayed with me and to which I expect to return. ( )
  Sunita_p | Sep 4, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 22 (next | show all)
Its gaps and fissures, its silences, its elaboration of attachment, separation and loss amount to a profound meditation on the nature of national identity, enforced emigration and the dispersal of a people into lands frequently inhospitable and alienating, there to forge a new life.
added by msjudy | editThe Guardian, Alex Clark (Oct 28, 2016)
Tom’s quirky narrative makes the unthinkable suddenly comprehensible. When he looks at the enemy and sees the unexpected, so do we. “South don’t got uniforms, grits, or oftentimes shoes. Half of these fierce-looking bastards in bare feet. Could be denizens of a Sligo slum-house. God damn it, probably are, some of them..... Grief may freeze the heart, the body be tested to extremes, but where there’s life there’s hope, and love is what makes life worth living, a sentiment that links Barry’s novels across all their times and places....In Days Without End, what Barry makes unforgettable (and unexpectedly relevant) is American history as seen on the back of the tapestry, the untidy side of the weave, the one that makes more of it suddenly make sense.
Barry creates a sense of America as a huge canvas of juxtaposition and possibility, and human life as something similar.
added by ghefferon | editThe New Yorker
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I saw a wayworn trav'ler
In tattered garments clad

John Mathias
I saw a wayworn trav'ler
In tattered garments clad
- John Mathias
For my son Toby
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The method of laying out a corpse in Missouri sure took the proverbial cake.
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After signing up for the US army in the 1850s, aged barely seventeen, Thomas McNulty and his brother-in-arms, John Cole, go on to fight in the Indian wars and, ultimately, the Civil War.

Having fled terrible hardships they find these days to be vivid and filled with wonder, despite the horrors they both see and are complicit in. Their lives are further enriched and imperilled when a young Indian girl crosses their path, and the possibility of lasting happiness emerges, if only they can survive.

Moving from the plains of the West to Tennessee, Sebastian Barry's latest work is a masterpiece of atmosphere and language. Both an intensely poignant story of two men and the lives they are dealt, and a fresh look at some of the most fateful years in America's past, Days Without End is a novel never to be forgotten. [Amazon.co.uk]
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